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Book Cover, Art Design, Concept and Editing: 
Copyright 2014 © Discovery Publisher 
Book Content: Copyright © Aaron Swartz 

The pricing for this compilation and special edition of Aaron’s 
writings has been purposely set low on Kindle, iBooks and Nook. 
Because of the high cost involved in publishing an 824-page book in 
5.5x8 .5” format via Print on Demand and through Amazon Extended 
Distribution, its price couldn’t be set any lower. 

Author : Aaron Swartz 
Editor in Chief: Adriano Lucchese 

Discovery Publisher 

616 Corporate Way, Suite 2-4933 
Valley Cottage, New York, 10989 
facebook .com/Discovery Publisher 

New York • Tokyo • Paris • Hong Kong 



A Word from the Publisher 3 

What is going on here? 7 

Hello, world. 9 


A Sad Day for America 13 

Unspeakable Things 14 

Money and Politics 15 

The Facts About Money and Politics 16 

The Politics of Lying 17 

Shifting the Terms of Debate: How Big Business Covered 
Up Global Warming 19 

Making Noise: How Right-W ing Think Tanks Get the Word Out 22 
Endorsing Racism: The Story of The Bell Curve 24 

Spreading Lies: How Think Tanks Ignore the Facts 26 

Saving Business: The Origins of Right-Wing Think Tanks 28 

Hurting Seniors: The Attack on Social Security 30 

Fighting Back: Responses to the Mainstream Media 32 

An Inconvenient Truth 35 

The Attraction of the Center 36 

Talking Right 38 

The Invention of Objectivity 40 

The World Is Watching 42 

Mysteries of the Earth-Bound Human 44 

Trials ofTesting 47 

The Truth About the Drug Companies 51 

The Case Against Lawrence Summers 54 

Philip Zimbardo: on the Psychology of Evil 60 

Why is Big Media losing viewers? 64 



Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to Be Free 66 

Counterpoint: Downloading Isn’t Stealing 69 

Our Brave Censors 71 

Because We Can 72 

I Hate the News 74 

Google and the Gradient 77 

Founder’s Syndrome 80 

Up With Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt 82 

What Journalists Don’t Lessons from the Times 85 

Social Class in America 90 

Our Next Superjumbo 91 

The God Who Wasn’t There (And The One Who Was) 92 

What’s Freedom? 98 

Freakonomics 101 

The Immorality of Freakonomics 104 

The Conservative Nanny State 106 

What is Elitism? 109 

A Trip to the Courthouse Part 1 111 

A Trip to the Courthouse Part 2 114 

Free Speech 

Because We Can 118 

Identity Fetishism 120 

Drugs and Guns 122 

Medium Stupid 124 

The Goog Life: how Google keeps employees by treating 
them like kids 126 

Competition of Experimentation? 128 

The Enemy Too Close to Home 130 

John Hockenberry on Reporting the War at NBC 131 

Newspeak™ 134 

This Television Life 135 

Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War 137 

Why You Shop At Wal-Mart Economics Eats Itself 142 

A Call for Science that Matters 144 

Secured Leisure 146 

The Handwriting on the Wall 147 

Judgment Day 152 

The Visible Hand: A Summary 155 



Slaves of Some Dead Sociologist 161 

The False Consciousness Falsehood 164 

Simplistic Sociological Functionalism 167 

Tectonic Plates and Microfoundations 168 

HOWTO: Fix the News 171 

A Theory of Change 173 

Capital and its Complements Summary 177 

The Percentage Fallacy 179 

Rethinking Hyperbolic Discounting (or, The Percentage 
Fallacy, Continued) 181 

High Gas Prices Are Reagan’s Fault 182 

What Could Happen 183 

Economic BS Detector 186 

Cass Sunstein, Concern Troll 188 

How Depressions Work 190 

Who Really Rules? 193 

Journalistic Capture and Fixing CNBC 196 

In Defense of Elections 198 

A 24 Puzzle 201 

Investigative Strike Teams 203 

Transparency is Bunk 206 

Keynes, Explained Briefly 209 

How Policy Gets Made: A Primer 216 

The Median Voter and the Mixed Voter 218 

A Political Startup 220 

The Trouble with Nonprofits 225 

Subjectivism 228 

Because We Can 231 

Googling for Sociopaths 233 

Fewer Representatives or More Monitors? 235 

When Is Transparency Useful? 237 

The Reason So Many People Are Unemployed 244 

Theory of Change 248 

Philosophical Puzzles Resolved 252 

Brought to You by the Letter “S” 255 

When Brute Force Fails 257 

The Real Problem with Waiting for ‘Superman’ 261 

Goods, Services, and Delegations 263 



Professional Politicians Beware! 267 

America After Meritocracy: Chris Hayes’ 7 he Twilight of The Elites 212 
Thinking Clearly About Piece-Work 276 

Is Awkwardness Avoidable? 279 

What Happens in Batman Begins 281 

What Happens in The Dark Knight 283 


Fraud in Science 291 

David M. Clark on Cognitive Therapy 294 

The Disappearance ofThought 297 

Do Faces Cause Depression? Self- Experimentation in Science 299 
Science Summaries 302 

That Isn’t Science! 304 

The Hard Sciences 307 

The Sexual Life of Savages 308 

Sociology or Anthropology 311 

How Quantum Mechanics is Compatible with Free Will 313 

A Very Speculative Theory of Free Will 316 

Discrimination and Causation 318 

Area Scientist’s Study Confirms Own Prejudices 320 

Science or Philosophy? Jon Elster and John Searle 322 

The True Story of the Telephone 325 

The Logic of Loss 329 

The New Science of Causation 331 

Should our cognitive biases have moral weight? 337 

The Perils of Parfit 1: Credible Commitments 339 

Individuals in a World of Science 341 

Do I have too much faith in science? 345 

WORK & TECH 350 

Aaron joins Creative Commons as RDF Advisor 351 

Copyright is Unconstitutional! 352 

Copyright law exists to enlarge the public domain 355 

The Case for Source Code Escrow 356 

Charging Society 357 

The Early Days of A Better Website 359 



Privacy, Accuracy, Security: Pick Two 361 

Secrets of Standards 365 

Introducing Infogami 367 

Rewriting Reddit 370 

A Brief History of Ajax 374 

Release Late, Release Rarely 377 

The Fruits of Mass Collaboration 378 

The Techniques of Mass Collaboration: A Third Way Out 380 

What Does Blogspace Look Like? 383 

Wikimedia at the Crossroads 385 

Who Writes Wikipedia? 388 

Who Writes Wikipedia? — Responses 393 

False Outliers 396 

Who Runs Wikipedia? 398 

Making More Wikipedians 402 

Making More Wikipedias 405 

Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia 408 

(The Dandy Warhols) Come Down 410 

A Unified Theory of Magazines 413 

And Now, The News 415 

Office Space 417 

Life at the Office 419 

Products That Should Exist 421 

Eight Reasons (Some) Wikis Work 422 

7 Habits of Highly Successful Websites 425 

The Politics ofWikipedians 429 

The Politics ofWikis 430 

Announcing the Open Library 431 

The Joy of Public Speaking 432 

HOWTO: Get a Job Like Mine (I) 433 

HOWTO: Build Decent Productivity Software 441 

Introducing 444 

Welcome, 446 

HOWTO: Promote Startups 448 

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto 451 

HOWTO: Launch Software 453 

In Defense of Anonymity 457 

OCLC on the Run 459 



Non-Hierarchical Management 461 

A Non-Local Revolution 472 

Redesign 474 

djb 475 

How I Hire Programmers 478 

The Logic of Google Ads 481 

Researcher Job 486 

Is Apple Evil? 487 

Do It Now 489 

HOWTO: Get a Job Like Mine (II) 491 

Management, Organizing, Mobilizing 493 

A Censorship-Resistant Web 495 

Squaring the Triangle: Secure, Decentralized, Human-Readable 
Names 500 

How Apple Works 503 

What Does Google Mean by ‘Evil’? 506 

Steve Jobs and the Founder’s Pain 508 

Apple and the Kindle 511 

Revolutions on the Internet 513 

How Python 3 Should Have Worked 515 

The Pokayoke Guide to Developing Software 517 



Noam on Terrorism 533 

Like Father Like Son 534 

Meeting Justice Kennedy 535 

Stanford: Psychology is a Fraud 541 

Intellectual Diversity at Stanford 543 

Founders Unite for Startup School 545 

I Love the University 547 

Take the Easy Way Out 549 

The Awfulness of College Lectures 552 

The Greatness of College Lectures 554 

College: Commodity or Community? 556 

iz r childrens lrnng? 558 

Getting it Wrong 565 

Getting It Right 568 

Drop Out 569 



Never Back to School 571 

Our Underachieving College Presidents 573 

Disciplinary Bubbles 575 

A Reading Machine 577 


Ethics By Analogy 581 

to the courthouse 582 

today is my birthday 583 

book connections: death and life, future of ideas, elements 
of typography 584 

what should I do with my life? 586 

Notes to Self 587 

Change of Course 588 

The Book That Changed My Life 590 

HOWTO: be more productive 593 

The Intentionality of Evil 604 

Serious Social Science 605 

Eat and Code 607 

The Miracle Diet 610 

A Future Without Fat 613 

Fat Backlash 616 

On Losing Weight 619 

Nutrition Basics 622 

Simple Tips for Longer Living 625 

Say Goodbye to Embarrassment 626 

Tips for Better Thinking 628 

Think Bigger: A Generalist Manifesto 630 

What It Means To Be An Intellectual 632 

A Non-Programmer’s Apology 635 

A Clarification 640 

Life in Suburbia: Land of Cliche 641 

Legacy 645 

What Makes a Personality Scary? 648 

The Smalltalk Question 650 

Of the MBTA 652 

Alone in the Hospital 655 

A Feminist Goes to the Hospital 659 



Life in the Hospital 662 

Everybody Tells Me So 664 

Meeting Peter Singer 665 

Causes of Conformance 668 

Business ‘Ethics’ 671 

The Genius is in the Details 674 

Two Conceptions ofTaste 676 

A Moment Before Dying 678 

The Sociologist’s Creed 682 

The Activist’s Creed 682 

The Intellectual’s Creed 683 

Getting Past 684 

Neurosis #9 686 

Everything Good is Bad For You 690 

Aaron’s Patented Demotivational Seminar 692 

The Secret Behind The Secret 694 

Sick 697 

Starting Out in the Morning 699 

The Theory of The Game (I) 700 

The Theory of The Game (II) 701 

Money & Control 706 

Money & Worth 708 

Moving On 709 

Last Goodbyes 711 

NYT Personals 712 

A New Kind ofWriting? 715 

A Life Offline 718 

My Life Offline 720 

Writing a Book Part One (Ambition) 723 

Why I Am Not Gay 726 

A Short Course in Ethics 728 

Honest Theft 731 

Wanted by the FBI 734 

Is the DMCA a scam? 739 

Against Reflective Equilibrium (or, What is ethics for?) 741 

The Anti- Suit Movement 743 

HOWTO: Read more books 744 

HOWTO: Lose weight 747 



That Sounds Smart 749 

On Intellectual Dishonesty 751 


Raw Nerve 756 

Take a step back 757 

Believe you can change 759 

Look at yourself objectively 764 

Lean into the pain 770 

Confront reality 775 

Cherish mistakes 779 

Fix the machine, not the person 782 

What are the optimal biases to overcome? 787 


Losing Aaron 792 





I didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was. Then, in June 2014, I watched 
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz 1 . 

Aaron taught himself to read when he was three. At twelve, he created 
Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia, which he later likened to 
an early version of Wikipedia. Not long after, Aaron turned his computer 
genius to political organizing, information sharing and online freedom. 

In 2006, Aaron downloaded the Library of Congress’s complete 
bibliographic dataset. The library charged fees to access them. However, 
as a government document, it was not copyright-protected within the 
USA. By posting the data on, Aaron made it freely 
available. Eventually, the Copyright Office sided in favor of Aaron. 

In 2008, Aaron downloaded and released 2.7 million federal court 
documents stored in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records 
(PACER) database managed by the Administrative Office of the United 
States Courts. The Hujfngton Post characterized his actions as: “Swartz 
downloaded public court documents from the PACER system in an effort 
to make them available outside of the expensive service. The move drew 
the attention of the FBI, which ultimately decided not to press charges 
as the documents, were, in fact, public.” 2 

In late 2010, Aaron downloaded a large number of academic journal 
articles through MIT’s computer network. At the time, Aaron was a 
research fellow at Harvard University, which provided him with an 
authorized account. Aaron’s motivation for downloading the articles was 
never fully determined. However, friends and colleagues reported that his 
intention was either to publicly share them on the Internet or uncover 
corruption in the funding of climate change research. This time, faced with 
prosecutors being overzealous and a dysfunctional criminal justice system 3 , 
Aaron was charged with a maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and 
35 years in prison, leading to a two-year legal battle with the US federal 
government that ended when Aaron took his own life on January 11, 2013. 



Soon after Aaron’s death, director Brian Knappenberger, who was 
“inspired, infuriated and frustrated” 3 by his suicide, began filming The 
Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. 

After watching the end of the documentary, I was saddened by this 
tragic story and left with many questions: Why did the US criminal justice 
system take such a strong and unprecedented stand on punishing Aaron? 
Why did Aaron find no other way out than ending his life? What legacy 
did Aaron leave behind him? 

I discovered that between 2007 and 2011 Aaron read 614 books; one 
book every three days. Early on, Aaron made a point to write about his 
findings and reflection 4 . From the “Hello World” 5 post published on 
January 13, 2002 to the last known article written on November 1, 2012 
“What Happens in The Dark Knight” b , Aaron published 1,478 articles 
on his personal blog 7 ; one article every three days. 

Aaron dealt with a wide range of subjects going from politics, economics, 
science, sociology, through technology, education, nutrition, philosophy, 
among many others. But beyond that, I was struck by the clarity of Aaron’s 
mind on the difficulty of the subjects he was dealing with at such a young 
age. When the typical 16 year-old college student worries shout fitting in 
and mating, Aaron was tackling with a book publication 8 and wondered 
about what he should do with his life 9 . At 18 he read Noam Chomsky, 
and at 23 wrote the very impressive 12,000-word piece “A Summary/ 
Explanation of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory” 10 . This article 
was dealing with such complexity that two days after its publication, it 
was followed by a much shorter and accessible version, titled “Keynes, 
Explained Briefly” 11 . 

After two months into Aaron’s writing, I was convinced that what 
Lawrence Lessig said at the MIT Media Lab talk “A remembrance of 
Aaron Swartz: A statement from Tim Berners-Lee read by Lawrence 
Lessig” 12 , was indeed the best way to describe Aaron : he was not after 
the money; he was on to making a better world for us all; a freer world. 

Back in May 15, 2006, in the article “The Book That Changed My 
Life” 13 Aaron wrote: 

[...] It’s taken me two years to write about this experience , not 
without reason. One terrifying side effect of learning the world isn’t 



the way you think is that it leaves you all alone. And when you 
try to describe your new worldview to people, it either comes out 
sounding unsurprising (“yeah, sure, everyone knows the media’ s got 
problems ”) or like pure lunacy and people slowly back away. 

Ever since then, I’ve realized that I need to spend my life working 
to fix the shocking brokenness I’d discovered. And the best way to 
do that, I concluded, was to try to share what I’d discovered with 
others. I couldn’t just tell them it straight out, I knew, so I had to 
provide the hard evidence. So I started working on a book to do just 

Much has been written on the Internet about Aaron’s decision to end 
his life. The article “Losing Aaron” 14,15 written by Boston Magazine after 
interviewing Aaron’s father, Robert Swartz, gives a particularly precise 
and touching account of Aaron’s struggles during that time. 

On July 26, 2006, in the post “I Love the University” 16 Aaron wrote: 

[..] I was once one of those kids, working there, and I think about 
why I left [the university] and why I miss it. I marvel at the 
pointlessness, the impracticality, the waste. 

The sky is overcast now, the crowds of students have thinned out, 
and those that remain scurry from place to place with their heads 
down. I’m tired now, I feel sadder, and I wonder how I lost so much 
so quickly. 

I want to feel nostalgic, I want to feel like there’s this place, just 
a couple subway stops away, where everything will be alright. A 
better place, a place I should be in, a place I can go back to. But even 
just visiting it, the facts are plain. It doesn’t exist, it never has. I’m 
nostalgic for a place that never existed. 

There have been numerous criticisms about Aaron’s decision to end his 
life. Some agree with it, some don’t. Whether he made the right decision 
is certainly not for me to comment on. 

Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on the positive impact Aaron made on us 
all. This is why I decided to publish some of Aaron’s best writings in the 
form of this present book. 



Five months before his death, Aaron completed Raw Nerve 17 , a series 
of articles reflecting on life, depicting an honest, painful and yet beautiful 
picture of the tragedy of life. Perhaps then, Aaron knew his time was 
drawing to an end... 

RIP, Aaron Swartz. 

Adriano Lucchese 
Discovery Publisher 
November 1, 2014 

1 . https : //www. youtube. com/watch? v=vXr-2hwTk5 8 

2 . http: / /www. huffingtonpost. com/20 13/02/07/darrell-issa-internet- 
f r eedom_n_2 633197. html 

3 . 

4. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.7 

5 . http : / /www . aaronsw . com/weblog/ 000081 

6. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.283 


8 . http : / /www . aaronsw . com/2 0 02 /bookAuthorTips 

9. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.586 

10 . 

11. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.209 

12 . 

13. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.590 

14 . 

15. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.792 

16. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.547 

17. Raw Thought, Raw Nerve, P.756 

Disclaimer: The totality of the unedited content of Raw Thought, 
Raw Nerve is freely available on Aaron’s blog 7 . The pricing for this 
compilation and special edition has been purposely set low on Kindle, 
iBooks and Nook. Because of the high cost involved in publishing an 
824-page book in 5. 5x8. 5” format via Print on Demand and through 
Amazon Extended Distribution, its price couldn’t be set lower. 
However, as I believe Aaron would have wanted it 9 , this book will 
be released free of charge through torrent starting a year after its first 
publication, in November 2015. 




I n his 1959 classic, The Sociological Imagination , the great sociologist 
Charles Wright Mills told students of the discipline: 

As a social scientist, you have to ... capture what you experience and 
sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your 
reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. 
But how can you do this ? One answer is: you must set up a blog. . . 

In such a blog . . . there is joined personal experience and professional 
activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this blog, you . . . 
will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are 
experiencing as a person, here you will not be afraid to use your experience 
and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check 
on repetitious work, your blog also enables you to conserve your energy. 

It also encourages you to capture fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which 
may be byproducts of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard in 
the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more 
systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed 

. . . 7 he blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. ...In developing 
the blog, you can experiment as a writer and this, as they say, develop 
your powers of expression. 

Actually, he called it a “file” instead of a blog, but the point remains the 
same: becoming a scientific thinker requires practice and writing is a powerful 
aid to reflection. 

So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m 
working on, stuff I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and so on. Whenever a 
thought crystalizes in my head, I type it up and post it here. I don’t read over 
it, I don’t show it to anyone, and I don’t edit it — I just post it. 



I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking. I like sharing my 
thoughts and I like hearing yours and I like practicing expressing ideas, but 
fundamentally this blog is not for you, it’s for me. I hope that you enjoy it 

Aaron Swartz 
July 29, 2006 



Hello, world. 


Aaron Swartz 
January 13, 2002 05:21 AM 





CNN: Senate approves Iraq war resolution 1 . ‘The president praised the 
congressional action, declaring “America speaks with one voice.’” 

I’m not sure how the president can call it one voice when half of America 
does not want to go to war 2 . 

Miguel 3 sent an email expressing his support to stop the war. He also told 
me about an article talking about how we have failed to learn from history 4 . 
He wrote: “most dumb laws are passed before an election and when there is 
a rush and no time to inform the American public, whoever takes the most 
hard-line position wins. The same thing happening now in congress.” Thanks, 

I wish I had known that such horrible things were going to happen while 
I was D.C.; I might have been able to join some protests or something. I 
feel powerless, perhaps I should move to another country. However, I am 
heartened that my senator voted nay 5 , 1 wonder if my fax last night may have 
done some good. 

October 11, 2002 

1 . http : / /www . cnn . com/ 2 0 02 /ALLPOLITICS/ 1 0/11/ iraq . us/ 

2 . http : / /www . cnn . com/ 2 0 02 /ALLPOLITICS/ 1 0/07/ iraq .poll/ 

3 . http : //primates . ximian . com/~miguel/ activity-log . php 

4 . http: / /www. 

5 . http : / /www . senate . gov/ legis lative/ vote 1072/ vote_0 02 3 7 . html 




Paul Graham has written a fascinating article on What You Cant Say 1 — those 
ideas which are so heretical that people will shout you down and call you 
names for even daring to state them. 

Soon after (but not intentionally because of) I said people have no right 
to make me pay to use their software 2 and was quickly shouted down as 
immoral, childish, and (especially funny) anti-capitalist/communist 3 ’ 4 ’ 5 . I 
don’t want to discuss these things, but I do want to try to come up with a list 
of unspeakable things. What things qualify? It’s hard to say precisely, but I 
think they should have a reasonable chance of being true yet you would be 
embarrassed to admit you believed them to your friends. 

Here’s the list so far: 

• Democracy isn’t a very good idea; lots of people shouldn’t be allowed 
to vote. 

• Sex with and in front of children/animals/ multiple people is OK. 

• Eugenics and suicide should be encouraged. 

• Blacks and women are naturally not as smart as white men. 

Can you think of things to add ? Comment or email. I promise to do what I 
can to keep your suggestions anonymous; good ones will be added to this list 
and deleted from the comments. 

January 05, 2004 

1 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ say . html 

2 . http : / /www . aaronsw . com/ 2002/ onPiracy 

3 . http: / / 181 .php 

4 . http : / /www . docuverse . com/blog/donpark/EntryViewPage . 
aspx?guid=7a592614-ff2 1-48 17-b7c0-3ea9a7007 122 

5 . http: / /www.25hoursaday .com/weblog/CommentView.aspx?guid=9f3fa053- 




Think money doesn’t decide who wins elections? 

Candidate name 

% of vote 

% of money 


























Think again. 

November 03, 2004 

• Washington Post: 

• Center for Responsive Politics: 
presidential/ index . asp 




The previous article , “. Money and Politics”, was meant as a somewhat humorous 
and thought-provoking piece of commentary about campaign spending. 

However, for those who are truly curious about how money runs politics, 
I know of no better source than Thomas Ferguson’s book Golden Rule: The 
Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political 
Systems. The principle alluded to by the title is “to discover who rules, follow 
the gold” and Ferguson does just that. Using historical evidence including 
letters, contribution records, public statements, and other documents, Ferguson 
shows precisely how, from the very founding of the country, politics has been 
a game for and by large wealthy interests. 

The underlying theory is really very simple: running a political campaign 
is expensive. Individuals are poorly organized to contribute with significant 
effects. That leaves large corporations who fund practically all viable candidates. 

Of course, corporations are usually not monolithic, and political battles arise 
because of their conflicting interests. Some industries may prefer protectionism 
to secure the domestic market for themselves. Others may prefer free trade 
so they can sell and buy from foreign markets. These different corporate 
blocs coalesce around different candidates who then spend their money to 
do whatever it takes to get the populace to vote for them. 

The key point about the theory is that issues which no corporations support, 
even if massively popular among the people, will never be raised in a political 
campaign. Were a candidate to make the mistake of supporting them, his 
money supply would quickly dry up and his campaign would wither. The 
result? All political policies enacted, from the New Deal to the invasion of 
Vietnam, are those supported by the wealthy corporations, not the people. 

November 04, 2004 




It is a truism that politicians and political groups lie. Lies uncovered on one 
political side are frequently written off by saying “all politicians lie” or “the 
other side lies too”. Indeed, uncovered lies on one side are sometimes used 
an argument to be skeptical of the other (as in, “since you’ve show the Whigs 
lie a lot why aren’t you equally skeptical of the Tories?”). 

Does this really make sense? It helps to ask the all-important question: “Cui 
bono?” or “Who benefits?” 

Take the issue of gun control. There are heated partisans on both sides of the 
issue who claim to have facts to back up their positions about how much harm 
is caused by guns. Let’s say the gun-control advocates (the left) investigated 
and found that they were wrong and guns weren’t really a problem after all. 
For them, this is good news — they no longer have to spend time and energy 
protecting people from guns, since they aren’t a problem in the first place. 
Thus the left has little reason to lie. 

The story is different for the right. If gun rights advocates discovered that 
guns really did kill lots of people, their position would not change. They would 
still be in support of giving people guns. The only problem is that much of 
the public might not be. Thus, there is a strong incentive for them to lie. 

The facts bear this theory out. Conservative “scholar” John Lott has made 
up studies, falsified data, and done other things to prove that guns are actually 
a good thing. Despite all this, he continues to receive large grants from 
conservative patrons, prominent play in The New York Times , large sales for 
his erroneous book, and draws large crowds and acclaim from conservatives. 

By contrast, Michael Besailles was found to have made some errors in citation 
in his pro-gun-conrol historical work. Besailles was promptly investigated, 
fired, exposed in the Boston Globe, had his book pulled from publication, 
and was torn to shreds in various public forums. 



Not surprisingly, considering the rewards and punishments involved, new 
liars on the right pop up frequently while liars on the left are relatively rare. 

Even more evidence supporting this theory can be found by looking at 
when the left does lie. Take, for example, the case of Ralph Nader. The left 
has raked Nader over the coals for his 2004 presidential campaign, suggesting 
he’s getting funds and signatures from Republicans, attacked Michael Moore 
for being fat, and done other horrible things. 

Yet, as the Nader campaign explains, they have worked hard to refuse 
signatures from Republicans, fighting lengthy court battles to get them ruled 
unnecessary. Only 51 Republicans, many of whom Ralph says he knows 
personally, have donated to the campaign and collectively they’ve donated 
even more to the Democrats. And Ralph merely expressed some concern 
about Moore’s health towards the end of a letter. 

The simplistic analysis would be to tout this as proof that the left does lie, 
but again it is interesting to look at the circumstances. When does the left 
lie? When it is attacking people even further to the left and is thus, in a very 
real sense, acting as the right. 

The next time you hear a claim from a politician, don’t just be skeptical. Ask 
who benefits — the left or the right? 

October 25, 2004 





In 2004, Michelle Malkin, a conservative editorialist, published the book In 
Defense of Internment. It argued that declassified security intercepts showed 
that Japanese internment during World War II — the government policy 
that relocated thousands of Japanese to concentration camps — was actually 
justified in the name of national security. We needed to learn the truth, Malkin 
insisted, so that we could see how racial profiling was similarly justified to 
fight the “war on terror.” 

Bainbridge Island was the center of the evacuations; to this day, residents 
still feel ashamed and teach students a special unit about the incident, entitled 
“Leaving Our Island”. But one parent in the district, Mary Dombrowski, 
was persuaded by Malkin’s book that the evacuation was actually justified 
and insisted the school was teaching a one-sided version of the internment 
story, “propaganda” that forced impressionable children into thinking that 
the concentration camps were a mistake. 

The school’s principal defended the practice. As the Seattle Times reported: 

“We do teach it as a mistake,” she said, noting that the U.S. 
government has admitted it was wrong. “As an educator, there are some 
things that we can say aren’t debatable anymore.” Slavery, for example. 

Or the internment — as opposed to a subject such as global warming, 
she said. 1 

True, Japanese internment isn’t a controversial issue like global warming, 
but ten years ago, global warming wasn’t a controversial issue either. In 1995, 
the UN’s panel on international climate change released its consensus report, 
finding that global warming was a real and serious issue that had to be quickly 
confronted. The media covered the scientists’ research and the population 
agreed, leading President Clinton to say he would sign an international treaty 
to stop global warming. 

Then came the backlash. The Global Climate Coalition (funded by over 40 



major corporate groups like Amoco, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 
General Motors) began spending millions of dollars each year to derail the 
Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to help reduce global warming. They 
held conferences entitled “The Costs of Kyoto,” issued press releases and faxes 
dismissing the scientific evidence for global warming, and spent more than 
S3 million on newspaper and television ads claiming Kyoto would mean a 
“50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.” 2 

The media, in response to flurries of “blast faxes” (a technique in which a press 
release is simultaneously faxed to thousands of journalists) and accusations 
of left-wing bias, began backing off from the scientific evidence. 3 A recent 
study found only 35% of newspaper stories on global warming accurately 
described the scientific consensus, with the majority implying that scientists 
who believed in global warming were just as common as global warming 
deniers (of which there were only a tiny handful, almost all of whom had 
received funding from energy companies or associated groups). 4 

It all had an incredible effect on the public. In 1993, 88% of Americans 
thought global warming was a serious problem. By 1997, that number had 
fallen to 42%, with only 28% saying immediate action was necessary. 5 And 
so Clinton changed course and insisted that cutting emissions should be put 
off for 20 years. 

US businesses seriously weakened the Kyoto Protocol, leading it to require 
only a 7% reduction in emissions (compared to the 20% requested by European 
nations) and then President Bush refused to sign on to even that. 6 In four 
short years, big business had managed to turn nearly half the country around 
and halt the efforts to protect the planet. 

And now, the principal on Bainbridge Island, like most people, thinks 
global warming is a hotly contested issue — the paradigmatic example of a 
hotly contested issue — even when the science is clear. (“There’s no better 
scientific consensus on this on any issue I know,” said the head of the National 
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “except maybe Newton’s second 
law of dynamics.”) 7 But all this debate about problems has kept us away from 
talk about solutions. As journalist Ross Gelbspan puts it, “By keeping the 
discussion focused on whether there is a problem in the first place, they have 
effectively silenced the debate over what to do about it.” 8 So is it any wonder 



that conservatives want to do the same thing again? And again? And again? 

June 6, 2006 

1 . http : / / seattletimes . nwsource . com/html/ localnews/2 002027 63 9_ 
bainbridge06m. html 

2 . http: / / 

3 . 

4 . http : / / f air . org / index . php?page=l 9 7 8 

5. Cambridge Reports, Research International poll. "Do you feel that 
global warming is a very serious problem...?", Cambridge Reports 
National Omnibus Survey, September 1993, in Roper Center for Public 
Opinion Research (0290350, 039). USCAMREP . 93SEP, R40. 

6 . 

7. Warrick, Joby. "Consensus Emerges Earth Is Warming - Now What?", 
Washington Post, 12 Nov. 1997: A01. 






Malkin’s book on internment was no more accurate than the corporate 
misinformation about global warming. Historians quickly showed the 
book badly distorted the government records and secret cables it purported 
to describe. As just one example, Malkin writes that a Japanese message 
stated they “had [Japanese] spies in the U.S. Army” when it actually said 
they hoped to recruit spies in the army. 1 But it should be no big surprise 
that Malkin, who is, after all, an editorialist and not a historian, didn’t 
manage to fully understand the complex documentary record in the year 
she spent writing the book part-time. 2 

Malkin’s motives, as a right-wing activist and proponent of racial profiling, 
are fairly obvious. But how did Mary Dombrowski, the Bainbridge Island 
parent, get caught up in this latest attempt to rewrite history? Opinions on 
global warming were changed because big business could afford to spent 
millions to change people’s minds. But racial profiling seems like less of 
a moneymaker. Who invested in spreading that message? 

The first step is getting the information out there. Dombrowski probably 
heard about Malkin’s book from the Fox News Channel, where it was 
ceaselessly promoted for days, and where Malkin is a contributor. Or 
maybe she heard about it on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, a show 
hosted by a former Republican congressman, which had Malkin as a 
guest. Or maybe she heard it while driving and listening to FOX host 
Sean Hannity’s radio show, or maybe Rush Limbaugh’s. Or maybe she 
read a review in the New York Post (which, like Fox News, is owned by 
Rupert Murdoch). Or maybe she read about it on a right-wing website 
or weblog, like, which publishes 10 new conservative op- 
ed columns every day. 

All of these organizations are partisan conservative, for 
example, is published by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington, 
D.C. think tank. Most people imagine a think tank as a place where smart 
people think big thoughts, coming up with new ideas for the government to 



use. But that’s not how Heritage works. Nearly half of Heritage’s $30 million 
budget is spent on publicity, not research.3 Every day, they take work like 
Malkin’s that agrees with their ideological prejudices and push it out through 
the right-wing media described above (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, New 
York Post) and into the mainstream media (ABC, NPR, New York Times, 
Seattle Times). 

They use a variety of tactics. Heritage, for example, publishes an annual 
telephone directory featuring thousands of conservative experts and 
associated policy organizations. (The Right Nation, 161) And if looking 
up somebody is too much work, Heritage maintains a 24-hour hotline 
for the media, providing quotes promoting conservative ideology on any 
subject. Heritage’s “information marketing” department makes packages 
of colored index cards with pre-printed talking points for any conservative 
who plans to do an interview. (The Right Nation, 167) And Heritage 
computers are stocked with the names of over 3,500 journalists, organized 
by specialty, who Heritage staffers personally call to make sure they have 
all the latest conservative misinformation. Every Heritage study is turned 
into a two-page summary which is then turned into an op-ed piece which 
is then distributed to newspapers through the Heritage Features Syndicate. 
(What Liberal Media?, 83) 

It all adds up: a 2003 study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the 
media watch group, found conservative think tanks were cited nearly 
14,000 times in major newspapers, television, and radio shows. (By 
comparison, liberal think tanks were cited only 4,000 times that year.) 4 
That means 10,000 additional quotes of right-wing ideology, misleading 
statistics, distorted facts, and so on. There’s no way that doesn’t unfairly 
skew the public debate. 

June 7, 2006 

1 . .html 

2 . http : / /www . isthat legal . org/Muller_and_Robinson_on_Malkin . html 

3 . http: / /www. fair .org/extra/9607/heritage. html 

4 . http: / /www. 





If you have any doubt about the power of the think tanks, look no further 
than the story of The Bell Curve. Written by Charles Murray, who received over 
1.2 million from right-wing foundations for his work, the book claimed that 
IQ_tests revealed black people to be genetically less intelligent than whites, 
thus explaining their low place in society. Murray published the 845-page 
book without showing it to any other scientists, leading the Wall Street Journal 
to say he pursued “a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters 
while withholding them from likely critics” in an attempt “to fix the fight . . . 
contrary to usual publishing protocol.” Murray’s think tank, the American 
Enterprise Institute, flew key members of the media to Washington for a 
weekend of briefings on the book’s content. (What Liberal Media?, 94) 

And the media lapped it up. In what Eric Alterman has termed “a kind of 
Rorschach test for pundits,” (What Liberal Media?, 96) every major media 
outlet reviewed the book without questioning the accuracy of its contents. 
Instead, they merely quibbled about its proposed recommendations that the 
dumb blacks, with their dangerously high reproductive rates, might have to 
be kept in “a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation” 
without such luxuries as “individualism, equal rights before the law,” and so 
on. Reviewers proposed more moderate solutions, like just taking away their 
welfare checks. (What Liberal Media?, 94) 

But such quibbles aside, the amount of coverage alone was incredible. 
The book received cover stories in Newsweek (“the science behind [it] is 
overwhelmingly mainstream”), The New Republic (which dedicated an entire 
issue to discussion of the book), and The New York Times Book Review (which 
suggested critics disliked its “appeal to sweet reason” and are “inclined to 
hang the defendants without a trial”). Detailed articles appeared in TIME, 
The New York Times (“makes a strong case”), The New York Times Magazine, 
Forbes (praising the book’s “Jeffersonian vision”), the Wall Street Journal, and 
the National Review. It received a respectful airing on such shows as ABCs 
Nightline, PBS ’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the McLaughlin Group, Think 
Tank (which dedicated a special two-part series to the book), ABCs PrimeTime 



Live, and NPR’s All Things Considered. With fifteen weeks on the bestseller 
list, it ended up selling over 300,000 copies in hardcover. 1 

This wasn’t just a media debate about the existence of global warming or 
the merits of internment, this was a full-on media endorsement of racism, 
which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “The belief that race 
accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular 
race is superior to others.” Nor did the media mention the work’s political 
intentions. On the contrary, they presented it as the sober work of social 
scientists: Nightline’s Ted Koppel lamented to Murray about how his “great 
deal of work and research” had become “a political football”. 2 

Of course, this was almost certainly Murray’s intention all along. In the book 
proposal for his previous book (Losing Ground, an attack on government 
welfare programs) he had explained: “Why can a publisher sell this book? 
Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, 
and this book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about 
things they already think but do not know how to say.” 3 That’s certainly what 
The Bell Curve did, replacing a debate over how to improve black achievement 
with one about whether such improvement was even possible. 

There was just one problem: none of this stuff was accurate. As Professor 
Michael Nunley wrote in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist 
on The Bell Curve, after a series of scientific articles debunked all the book’s 
major claims: “I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have 
known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray 
must still know it’s a fraud as he goes around defending it. ... After careful 
reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of . . . how they 
were distorting the material they did include.” (What Liberal Media?, 100) 

June 8, 2006 

1,2,3 http : / /www. f air . org/ index . php?page=127 1 





But do the right-wing think tanks even care about the facts? In his 
autobiography, Blinded by the Right, David Brock describes his experience 
being recruited for one right out of college: “Though I had no advanced 
degrees, I assumed the grandiose title of John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional 
Studies, which, if nothing else, certainly impressed my parents. . . . My 
assignment was to write a monograph, which I hoped to publish as a book, 
challenging the conservative orthodoxy on the proper relationship between 
the executive and legislative branches of government.”This topic was chosen, 
Brock explains, because with “a squish like Bush in the White House . . . the 
political reality [was] that the conservative agenda could be best advanced 
by renegade conservatives on Capitol Hill.” (79f) 

Needless to say, paying fresh-faced former college students lots of money 
to write articles that serve political needs is not the best way to get accurate 
information. But is accurate information the goal? Look at John Lott, a 
“resident scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute — the same right- 
wing think tank that promoted The Bell Curve. Lott’s book More Guns, Less 
Crime claimed that his scientific studies had found that passing laws to allow 
people to carry concealed weapons actually lowered crime rates. As usual, 
the evidence melted away upon investigation, but Lott’s errors were more 
serious than most. 

Not content to simply distort the data, Lott fabricated an entire study 
which he claimed showed that in 97% of cases, simply brandishing a gun 
would cause an attacker to flee. When Internet critics begun to point out his 
inconsistencies on this claim, Lott posted responses under the name “Mary 
Rosh” to defend himself. “I have to say that he was the best professor I ever 
had,” Lott gushed about himself one Internet posting. “There were a group of 
us students who would try to take any class that he taught. Lott finally had 
to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors.” 

Confronted about his alternate identity, Lott told the Washington Post “I 
probably shouldn’t have done it — I know I shouldn’t have done it”. And 



yet, the very next day he again attacked his critics, this time under the 
new pseudonym “Washingtonian”. (It later got so bad that one of Lott’s 
pseudonyms would start talking about posts from another Lott pseudonym .) 1 

Lott, of course, is not the only scholar to make things up to bolster his 
case. For comparison, look at Michael Bellesiles, author of the anti-gun 
book Arming America, which argued guns were uncommon in early America. 
Other scholars investigated and found that Bellesiles had probably fabricated 
evidence. Emory University, where Bellesiles was a professor of history, begun 
an investigation into the accuracy of his work, eventually forcing him to 
resign. His publisher, Knopf, pulled the book out of print. Libraries pulled the 
book off their shelves. Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize the 
book had been awarded. The scandal was widely covered in academic circles. 
Bellesiles was firmly disgraced and has not shown his face in public since. 

And what happened to Lott? Nothing. Lott remains a “resident scholar” at 
the American Enterprise Institute, his book continues to sell well, his op- 
ed pieces are still published in major papers, and he gives talks around the 
country . 2 For the right-wing scholar, even outright fraud is no serious obstacle. 

June 9, 2006 

1 , 2 http : / / timlambert . org/ guns/Lott/ 





Since the goal of these think tanks clearly isn’t to advance knowledge, 
what are they for? To understand their real goals, we have to look at why 
they were created. After the tumultuous 1960s led a generation of students 
to start questioning authority, business decided something had to be done. 
“The American economic system,” explained Lewis Powell in a 1971 memo 
for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “is under broad attack” from “perfectly 
respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the 
media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from 

And business has no one to blame but itself for not getting these things under 
control: the colleges are funded by “contributions from capital funds controlled 
or generated by American business. The boards of trustees . . . overwhelmingly 
are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.” And the 
media “are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend 
upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive.” So business must “conduct 
guerilla warfare” by “establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars”who can be 
paid to publish a “steady flow of scholarly articles” in magazines and journals 
as well as books and pamphlets to be published “at airports, drugstores, and 
elsewhere.” 1 

William Simon, president of the right-wing Olin Foundation (the same one 
that later funded Brock) was more blunt: “The only thing that can save the 
Republican Party ... is a counter-intelligentsia. . . . [Conservative scholars] 
must be given grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, 
and more books.” (Blinded By the Right, 78) 

The Powell memo was incredibly influential. Soon after it was written, 
business began following its advice, building up its network of think tanks, 
news outlets, and media pressure groups. These organizations begun to dot 
the landscape, hiding behind respectable names like the Manhattan Institute 
or the Heartland Foundation. While these institutions were all funded by 
partisan conservatives, news accounts rarely noted this fact. (Another FAIR 



study finds The Heritage Foundation’s political orientation — let alone its 
funding — was only identified in 24% of news citations.) 2 

As the conservative message machine grew stronger, political debate and 
electoral results begun to shift further and further to the right, eventually 
allowing extreme conservatives to be elected, first with Ronald Reagan and 
now with George W. Bush. More recently, conservatives have managed 
to finally win not only the White House but both houses of Congress. 
While their policy proposals, when understood, are just as unpopular as ever, 
conservatives are able to use their media power to twist the debate. 

June to, 2006 

1 . http : //reclaimdemocracy . org / corporate_accountability/powell_memo_ 

2 . 





Recent events provide a compelling case study of how this process works. 
Conservatives have wanted to get rid of Social Security for years. The 
most successful anti-poverty program in history, it clearly shows how the 
government can be used to help people — anathema to conservative ideology. 
Now, with a secure lock on government, is their time to strike. As a White 
House deputy wrote in a memo that was later leaked, “For the first time in six 
decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win — and in doing so, we 
can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country .” 1 

There’s extremely strong public support for Social Security — conservatives 
could certainly never just come out and say they wanted to end it — so their 
plan is to deceive the public: First, persuade people that Social Security is 
facing some sort of crisis and won’t be around for the next generation. Second, 
convince them to begin replacing Social Security with a privatized version. 
Privatization, the logic goes, will naturally keep increasing until all of Social 
Security is eliminated. The only problem is that Social Security isn’t facing 
a crisis and any form of privatization, which would require both paying out 
to existing retirees and saving away money for the private accounts of the 
current generation, would worsen whatever financial problems Social Security 
does have . 2 

But think tanks have been preparing for this moment for years, floating 
privatization plans and doing their best to persuade the media that Social 
Security was in imminent danger. So when the Bush administration started 
up their anti-Social Security campaign, the media knew exactly what to say. 

CBS, for example, presented a segment featuring man-on-the-street Tad 
DeHaven. “I don’t expect to get anything from Social Security, OK?” said 
young DeHaven. “It’s not going to be there — that’s my assumption.” 
DeHaven had good reason to say these things: for years, he’s been one of the 
leading Republican activists in the fight to get rid of Social Security. CBS 
never mentioned the connection . 3 

A later CBS report boosted fears that Social Security was going bankrupt by 



displaying a graphic on the screen that read “2042: Insolvent = 0 benefits??” 
[sic] (“In 2042, Social Security will become insolvent, and today’s young 
workers risk losing their benefits,” a voiceover explained.) But this just isn’t 
true: even the pessimistic Social Security Administration concedes that by 
2042 Social Security will be able to pay nearly 80% of scheduled benefits, 
which is still far more than what it pays out today. 4 

Other networks were no better. NBC’s report feature quotes from Bush 
saying the system would go “flat bust” and an interview with a Heritage 
Foundation scholar — identified only as a “social security expert” — but 
allowed no critics to contradict their claims. 5 Meanwhile, an ABC report 
claimed “One thing everyone agrees on, the Social Security system as it 
exists now won’t be able to afford those payments for long after the Wilsons 
retire.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite: even the most pessimistic predictions 
say that Social Security will be fine until the Wilsons are statistically dead. 
Again, no critics... 6 

June n, 2006 

1 . http: / /www. . 

2 . http: / /www. fair .org/activism/cbs-cnn-social-security . html 

3 . http : / /www . f air . org / activism/ cbs-cnn-social-security . html 

4 . http : / /www. fair . org / activism/ cbs-social-security-update . html 

5 . http: / /www. .html 

6 . http : / /www . f air . org/ activism/ abc-socialsecurity . html 





Unlike the conservative media, it does not appear the national media is 
intentionally partisan. But it exists in a very specific structural context. 
A recent study found that two-thirds of journalists thought bottom-line 
pressure was “seriously hurting the quality of news coverage” while around 
half reported their newsrooms had been cut. 75% of print and 85% of 
broadcast journalists agreed that “too little attention is paid to complex 
issues.” 1 When you’re short on staff and stories are shallow, reporters become 
even more dependent on outside sources — and the right-wing think tanks 
are more than willing to help out, while further pulling coverage to the right. 

But one obvious solution — creating a matching set of left-wing think 
tanks — while perhaps helpful in balancing the debate, will not solve 
the problem. Media norms of balance mean that even qualified experts 
will always be presented as “just one side of the story,” balanced directly 
against inaccurate conservatives — recall how the handful of corporate- 
funded global warming deniers are still balanced against the overwhelming 
scientific consensus. 

Ideally, viewers would be able to hear both perspectives and decide which 
they thought was accurate. But since, as the journalists conceded, so little 
time is spent explaining complex issues, in practice very little information 
is presented that can help the viewer decide who’s correct. So they’re left 
to decide based on their existing ideological preferences, further splitting 
the country into two alternate realities. 

Figuring out what is true — especially when it’s so obvious, as in the 
examples above — is precisely what the mainstream media should be doing. 
Partisan pundits would be replaced with thoughtful scholars. Non-peer- 
reviewed books would be ignored, not endlessly promoted. Scientific facts 
would be given precedence over political arguments. Political commentary 
would be replaced by factual education. 

Don’t hold your breath. Six major companies own nearly 90% of all 



media outlets. 2 And they — and their advertisers — don’t mind how 
things are going. Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom (Paramount, CBS, 
Blockbuster, MTV, Comedy Central, etc.), told a group of CEOs that “I 
look at the election from what’s good for Viacom. I vote for what’s good 
for Viacom.” And, “from a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican 
administration is a better deal. Because the Republican administration 
has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on.” 3 Better 
news reporting wouldn’t just be more expensive, it would threaten these 
business interests. 

To get the straight story, it’s necessary to turn to independent and 
community sources which don’t have such conflicts of interest. One 
possibility is the daily news show Democracy Now!, hosted by Amy 
Goodman, which is funded only by viewers and foundations. Broadcast 
on 150 radio stations, 150 television stations, and the Internet, the show 
presents stories from activists, journalists, authors, and public interest 
organizations from around the world. 

When outlets from ABC to the New York Times began claiming Iraq had 
weapons of mass destruction, Democracy Now! was one of the few sources 
to take a contrary view. It presented the testimony of Iraq’s top weapons 
official, who defected to the US and explained that all the weapons had been 
destroyed. (Other stations, ironically, parroted the Bush administration in 
promoting the information he presented about the weapons Iraq had, without 
mentioning they had been destroyed.)4 

And when US soldiers kidnapped Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the 
democratically-elected president of Haiti, and flew him to the Central 
African Republic where they locked him in a hotel room, he managed to 
quietly phone out while armed guards stood outside his door. Democracy 
Now! was alone in airing his incredible story. When Aristide was finally 
freed, he insisted on returning to his country and again Amy Goodman 
was the only US television journalist who dared to accompany him back. 5 

Still, Democracy Now!’s audience is rather small compared to that of the 
mainstream media. But stories from overseas hint at what could happen 
if enough people begun paying attention to such sources. In South Korea, 
the country with the highest rate of broadband adoption, politics has been 



turned upside down by OhmyNews, a five-year-old website. Founded by 
Oh Yeon Ho, OhymyNews has a feature unlike any other paper: more than 
85% of its stories are contributed by readers. 6 

Almost anyone can write for OhmyNews: the site posts 70% of all stories 
that are submitted, over 15,000 citizen-reporters have published stories. 
OhmyNews copyedits their work but tries to leave their differing styles 
intact. The citizen-reporters write about things they know about and 
that interest them, together they end up covering most of the traditional 
spectrum. Yet their new voices end up providing coverage on things which 
typically get ignored by the mainstream media. 7 

This is most evident in their political coverage. Before OhmyNews, 
conservatives controlled 80% of Korea’s newspaper circulation. Then 
OhmyNews gave a voice to progressives, inspiring massive nationwide 
protests against the government. The protests, in turn, led to the election of 
reformist Roh Moo Hyun, now known as “the first Internet president.” 8 The 
furious conservative National Assembly responded by voting to impeach Roh 
on technical grounds. OhmyNews readers again organized and overthrew 
the Assembly in the next election, reinstating Roh. There’s no reason why 
what happened in South Korea can’t happen here. Overcoming the tide 
of misinformation is hard work, but working together committed citizens 
can make amazing progress, even when up against the most powerful 
interests. Out society has an extraordinary level of freedom and openness. 
Whether we use that freedom to seek out the truth or remain content with 
conventional platitudes is up to us. 

June n, 2006 

1 . http: / /people-press .org/reports/pdf/2 14topline.pdf 

2 . http : / /www . the voicenews .com/ news /2003/0411/ Front_Page /C 0 6_LaVoie- 

3 . http: / /www. opinion journal. com/ extra/?id=110005669 

4 . http: / / 

5 . http: / /www. pl?sid=04/03/0 1/152 12 16&mode=thr 

6 . http : / /www. siliconvalley . com/mid/ siliconvalley /business/ 
columnists/5889390 .htm 

7 . http : / / english . ohmynews . com/ articleview/ article_view. asp?article_ 

8 . http : / / english . ohmynews . com/ articleview/ articlejview. asp?article_ 
class=8Sno=201599Srel no=l 




A1 Gore’s presentation on global warming is filled with graphs — Gore is 
fanatical about collecting evidence, even at one point going to the North Pole 
to persuade the scientists there to release their records of the ice shelves — but 
only one of them really matters. It comes early in the film, as Gore talks about 
the large ice core samples that scientists take to trace the history of the Earth’s 
temperature and C0 2 ratings. 

Gore shows the results of these samples and then says we can go back 
further. The screen expands in both directions to show a massive graph of 
CO, concentration going back 600,000 years. Its had its fluctuations over 
that time — large hills and then valleys. Underneath it, he then graphs 
temperature over the same period. 

Temperature tracks CO, almost exactly, with a several-decade lag. Those 
large fluctuations? Those were the six ice ages we’ve had over the past 600,000 
years. C0 2 in the atmosphere goes up and so does the temperature, the CO, 
trapping the sun’s radiation inside our planet, where it heats the Earth. 

These huge fluctuations are the difference between ice ages and where we are 
today. Then Gore shows the most recent trajectory of COy straight up, more 
than doubled. “If that much CO, in one direction causes an ice age,” Gore 
says, “imagine what it will do in the other direction. ’’And then he shows the 
projections for the next 50 years. Again straight up, another doubling. “This 
is literally off he charts,” he explains. He has to climb up to reach that peak. 

“Not a single number in this graph,” he says, “is in dispute.” This is the 
inconvenient truth: unless we change, we will destroy the environment that 
sustains our species. 

June 6, 2006 




“Centrism” is the tendency to see two different beliefs and attempt to split 
the difference between them. The reason why it’s a bad idea should be obvious: 
truth is independent of our beliefs, no less than any other partisans, centrists 
ignore evidence in favor of their predetermined ideology. 

So what’s the attraction? First, it requires little thought: arguing for a specific 
position requires collecting evidence and arguing for it. Centrism, simply 
requires repeating some of what A is saying and some of what B is saying 
and mixing them together. Centrists often don’t even seem to care if the bits 
they take contradict each other. 

Second, it’s somewhat inoffensive. Taking a strong stand on A or B will 
unavoidably alienate some. But being a centrist, one can still maintain friends 
on both sides, since they will find at least some things that you espouse to be 
agreeable with their own philosophies. 

Third, it makes it easier to suck up to those in charge, because the concept of 
the “center” can easily move along with shifts in power. A staunch conservative 
will have to undergo a major change of political philosophy to get a place in 
liberal administration. A centrist can simply espouse a few more positions 
from the conservatives and a few less from the liberals and fit in just fine. This 
criteria explains why centrists are so prevalent in the pundit class (neither 
administration is tempted to really force them out) and why so many “centrist” 
pundits espouse mostly conservative ideas these days (the conservatives are 
in power). 

Fourth, despite actually being a servant of those in power, centrism gives one 
the illusion of actually being a serious, independent thinker. “People on the 
right and on the left already know what they’re going to say on every issue,” 
they might claim, “but we centrists make decisions based on the situation.” 
(This excuse was recently used in a fund-raising letter by The New Republic.) 
Of course, the “situation” that’s used to make these decisions is simply who’s 
currently in power, as discussed above, but that part is carefully omitted. 



Fifth, it appeals to the public. There’s tremendous dissatisfaction among 
the public with the government and our system of politics. Despite being 
precisely in the middle of this corrupt system, centrists can claim that they’re 
actually “independents” and “disagree with both the left and the right”. They 
can denounce “extremism” (which isn’t very popular) and play the “moderate”, 
even when their positions are extremely far from what the public believes or 
what the facts say. 

Together, these reasons combine to make centrism an especially attractive 
place to be in American politics. But the disease is far from limited to politics. 
Journalists frequently suggest the truth lies between the two opposing sources 
they’ve quoted. Academics try to distance themselves from policy positions 
proposed by either party. And, perhaps worst of all, scientists try to split the 
difference between two competing theories. 

Unfortunately for them, neither the truth nor the public necessarily lies 
somewhere in the middle. Fortunately for them, more valuable rewards do. 

Exercise for the reader: What’s the attraction of “contrarianism”, the ideology 
subscribed to by online magazines like Slate? 

July 12, 2006 




Government John Dewey famously said, is the shadow cast by big business 
over society. And political language, Geoffrey Nunberg argues in Talking 
Right, is the shadow cast by government. Democrats, he points out, seem to 
think language has a talismanic power, that if only they can find the right 
catch phrase or slogan, they can pull people over to their side. “Liberal” must 
become “progressive”, “family values” must become “valuing families”. 'There’s 
an intellectual cleverness to such stunts, and as a Berkeley linguist, Nunberg 
must want to believe in them. But he doesn’t. The words, he explains, are 
just a side-effect of the larger political situation. Dewey explained that 
attempts to change the shadow will have no effect without a change in the 
substance, and Nunberg heartily agrees. 

It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, but Democrats have suffered 
from a stubborn literalism in political discourse: thinking they can beat 
the charge of big government by launching programs cutting down on 
bureaucratic waste, thinking they can reclaim the issue of values by pointing 
to their love of tolerance and fairness, thinking they can dodge the charge 
of latte-sipping by donning a hunting cap and rifle. In reality, the issues go 
much deeper: big government is an attack on the notion that government 
can do good, values refers to a feeling of national morals run amok, and 
the latte-sipping charge is an attempt to distract voters from bigger issues 
of class. Nunberg even chastises his colleague George Lakoff for assuming 
that the current packages of political positions have any deeper meanings, 
rather than just being accidents of history. 

Nunberg is an essayist — his commentaries for NPR’s Fresh Air are a 
national treasure — and his style, while eminently readable, doesn’t translate 
well to a long book, where his points get lost in a field of anecdotes. But 
beneath all the stories about how conservatives eat more brie and liberal 
used to be a mantle claimed by everyone, Nunberg ’s point is a familiar 
one: if the Democrats want to win, they must begin telling full-throated 
populist stories about how the economic elite are capturing the wealth of 
our country and how we need government to take it back. The point is no 



less true for being popular, and it’s heartening to find that investigation 
from yet another perspective yields the same conclusions. 

October 17, 2006 




Big media pundits are always wringing their hands about how upstart 
partisan bloggers are destroying the neutral objectivity our country was 
founded on. (If there’s one thing pundits love to do, it’s hand-wringing.) 
Without major papers giving everyone an objective view of the facts, they 
insist, the very foundation of the republic is in peril. 

You can criticize this view for just being silly or wrong, and many have, 
but there’s another problem with it: it’s completely ahistorical. As Robert 
McChesney describes in The Problem of the Media, objectivity is a fairly recent 
invention — the republic was actually founded on partisan squabblers. 

When our country was founded, newspapers were not neutral, non-partisan 
outlets, but the products of particular political parties. The Whigs had their 
paper, the Tories theirs, and both of which attacked their political opponents 
with slurs that would make even the most foul-mouthed bloggers blush. This 
behavior wasn’t just permitted — it was encouraged. 

You often hear the media quote Jefferson’s comment that “were it left to 
me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or 
newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer 
the latter.” However, they hesitate to print the following sentence: “But I 
should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of 
reading them.” In particular, Jefferson was referring to the post office subsidy 
the government provided to the partisan press. 

In 1794, newspapers made up 70% of post office traffic and the big debate in 
Congress was not over whether the government should pay for their delivery, 
but how much of it to pay for. James Madison attacked the idea that newspaper 
publishers should have to pay even a token fee to get the government to deliver 
their publications, calling it “an insidious forerunner of something worse.” By 
1832, newspaper traffic had risen to make up 90% of all mail. 

Indeed, objectivity wasn’t even invented until the 1900s. Before that, 



McChesney comments, “such notions for the press would have been 
nonsensical, even unthinkable.” Everyone assumed that the best system of 
news was one where everyone could say their piece at very little cost. (The 
analogy to blogging isn’t much of a stretch, now is it? See, James Madison 
loved blogs!) 

But as wealth began to concentrate in the Gilded Age and the commercial 
presses began to lobby government for more favorable policies, the size and 
power of the smaller presses began to dwindle. The commercial presses were 
eager to be the only game in town, but they realized that if they were, their 
blatant partisanship would have to go. (Nobody would stand for a one- 
newspaper town if the one paper was blatantly biased.) So they decided to 
insist that journalism was a profession like any other, that reporting was an 
apolitical job, based solely on objective standards. 

They set up schools of journalism to train reporters in the new notion. In 
1900, there were no J-schools; by 1920, the major ones were going strong. 
The “church and state” separation of advertising and reporting became official 
doctrine and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) was set 
up to enforce it. 

The entire foundation of press criticism was rebuilt. Now, instead of 
criticizing papers for the bias of their owners, press critics had to focus on 
the professional obligations of their writers. Bias wasn’t about the slant of a 
paper’s focus, but about any slanting put in by a reporter. 

So that was the line of attack the house press critics took when the world of 
weblogs brought back the vibrant political debates of our country’s founding. 
“These guys are biased! Irresponsible! They get their facts wrong! They’re 
unprofessional!” they squeal. Look, guys. Tell that to James Madison. 

October 19, 2006 




The World is Watching is an incredible and, to my knowledge, unique film 
about the making of news. Two film crews, one at ABC News headquarters 
in New York, the other with ABC’s Central American Unit in Nicaragua, 
spend a day watching exactly how the clips that appear on the national nightly 
news are made. The result is revealing. 

The crew begins the day by checking in with Washington to get the 
appropriate framing for the story. At the same time, they keep an ear out for 
tips and scoops. They hear about a village leveled by the contras (the US- 
funded group fighting Nicaragua’s socialist government) and set out to get 
some film. 

They interview a peasant. “You have to be angry,” the reporter coaches his 
subject, who stubbornly remains calm and peaceful despite having been 
brutally attacked. This peasant, like every other one in the film, can clearly 
and eloquently explain exactly what’s going on: Reagan is fighting a war by 
proxy against their government because it has dared to institute policies which 
favor the poor (that is, people like them) over the wealthy elites. They live in 
horrid conditions, they are brutally attacked by contra forces, they appear to 
be just poor and stupid peasants — yet they know exactly what’s going on 
and tell the cameras as much. 

The cameras, of course, know better. For the journalists and the folks at 
home, the events are seen through a different frame. Five Central American 
countries have signed a peace agreement promising to institute Democratic 
reforms in exchange for peace. Most of these countries are US client-states 
where the governments we instituted brutally terrorize civilians and suppress 
democratic freedoms. The media doesn’t see that, though. Instead, Reagan 
literally directs their eyes elsewhere by delivering a heartfelt message to the 
media: they have an import responsibility — perhaps “one of journalism’s 
great triumphs,” he says — to ensure democracy flourishes. . . in Nicaragua. 

The journalists unquestionably accept this frame, sending camera crews to 



Nicaragua, not the other countries. Once there they ensure everything that 
comes back is fit into this frame. We watch as Peter Jennings marvels at how 
the Sandanista government has managed to survive the democratic reforms. 
We watch as the Washington team carefully scrutinizes the voiceovers, 
blanching at the suggestion that the protesters in the street are somehow 
“anti-war”. “It sounds like they’re peaceniks or something,” one reporter says. 
Pro-Sandanista protesters would be much better. 

Once the piece hits air the peasant’s words, so eloquent before, are chopped 
and translated for the larger audience. Now she is seen stupidly insisting that 
she does not see communism. This is just a backlash against being attacked 
by the contras, the voiceover helpfully explains, and anyway, she’s just a 
peasant — what does she know? Meanwhile, the Sandanista government 
still refuses to negotiate with the contras and is thus presumably the cause 
of all this violence. The whole piece takes up just two minutes on the news. 

At the same time the piece airs on ABC, the facts on the ground show a 
different story. Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandanistas, is giving a speech 
to a large assembled crowd. He will negotiate with the Sandanistas, he says. 
It’s too late — the piece has been filed and the ABC crew has already flown 
to the next day’s location. The folks at home never hear the news. 

October 24, 2004 




In my short stay upon this planet I have noticed many things interesting and 
strange which I have written about in this and other periodicals. However, 
there are some things which are more than just unusual: they are simply 
incomprehensible. And yet they are widespread and almost universally beloved. 

There are many silly and irrational things on this planet (I’m thinking of 
a major one in particular), but the irrationality of such things is generally 
acknowledged in the more intellectual circles and plausible explanations have 
been devised. No such thing is true of the following — it is the rare soul who 
would admit to agreeing with the following. 

Sports. Humans find no end of amusement in sitting on their butts on 
uncomfortable metal benches in an ugly, dirty facility that stinks of alcoholic 
beverages and saliva-modified products and watching a bunch of other humans 
far below play any of a variety of bizarre games with sticks and balls. They 
sit (or, more accurately, stomp and scream) and watch this entirely boring 
display for hours on end, repeatedly. When they cannot make it in person 
they watch facsimilies which are beamed into their homes. 

It is not simply that the humans have boring lives and appreciate any excuse 
from them. While that is undoubtedly true, it does not explain such a bizarre 
choice. There is no similar crowd who collects to observe the behavior of ants 
or even other humans (in constrained situations like malls, perhaps) even 
though both these things are far more interesting. 

Nor is it that the humans enjoy thinking about games, since broadcasts of 
more intellectual games receive nowhere near the same audience. Instead, 
such obsession is reserved for what they call “sports” — games with organized 
teams under rigid rules that involve a great deal of athletic activity. No 
explanation for this obsession is ever provided. Indeed, even questioning the 
obsession is taboo. 

Now let me be clear. I certainly find it enjoyable to play a good game, 



especially one that involves plenty of exercise. Yet even here, humans manage 
to inexplicably screw it up. When playing a game their goal is never to have 
fun, even though that is precisely what the game is good at. Instead, they 
become obsessed with the minutiae of following “the rules” and deciding 
who is “winning” — pastimes which generally practiced are antithetical to 
the aforementioned aim. 

Rock concerts. A sizable segment of the human population spends their time 
involved in the production of things that amuse other humans, a field known 
as “entertainment”. Some in this field create a certain type of interesting 
sounds, known as “music”. I have nothing against this endeavor — many of 
the results are quite enjoyable, with interesting results on mood and emotion. 
(Although most of it, especially that noted as “popular”, is quite bad.) 

And I can certainly sympathize with the desire to become more involved 
with a group of “musicians” who make sounds that one things especially 
good. However, the humans once again take this reasonable pursuit and turn 
it towards the bizarre. It turns out that the tribute takes form in what they 
call a “rock concert”. 

A concert consists of going to listen to the humans make their good sounds. 
(Reasonable so far.) However, for most modern bands, it is apparently required 
to do this in a dark and poorly-cleaned basement, pressed up against the bodies 
of numerous other people who are talking and stuff, with the sounds played 
through speakers at a volume so loud that they sound absolutely dreadful. 
The alcoholic beverages and so on also again make an appearance. 

Food. Like the humans, I require certain the consumption of certain objects 
in order to power the chemical reactions that allow me to functions (a process 
the humans call “eating”). While there are differences in our tastes (mine our 
smaller) and quantities (mine are larger), no one can object to doing these 
things which are necessary to live. 

What is bizarre is how much enjoyment they seem to get out of it. In a 
recent informal survey, the humans told me that “eating” made up a large 
part of the enjoyment they derived from their lives. I was not able to discern 
the causes of such enjoyment. 



In one incident, a subject explained how he looked forward fondly for the 
opportunity to consume a certain liquid. Interested in pursing such enjoyment, 
I decided to have some of the liquid with him. The liquid promptly proceeded 
to burn my innards, causing a distinctly unpleasant situation that lasted for 
some time. And yet this human is far from the only one who enjoys this 
liquid — facilities for distributing it seem to be on every block. But as far as 
I can tell humans do not enjoy burning their innards in any other situation. 
The fact that it’s “food” seems to have a magical power over them. 

[ This section has been censored from the Earth edition of this publication because 
it was found too inflammatory in focus groupsT\ 

This is the greatest of all human oddities. Humans are simply obsessed with 
sex and sexual relations and other related things. They think about it, according 
to some accounts, nearly all the time and much of their entertainment is 
dedicated to the subject. Yet, by all accounts, it is a distinctly unpleasant affair 
involving activities so disgusting I dare not describe them to you here. While 
humans no doubt derive pleasure from such activities, surely it is not worth 
the enormous costs — pleasure can be found in other ways in their society. 

Conclusion. I do not hold out much hope for solving these strange mysteries 
during my stay here. They are of some interest to me, but more as a sidenote 
than as anything I would devote my efforts to. Even if I were to investigate, I 
cannot even think of a plausibly effective way to proceed on these questions. So 
I write them up here and leave them as one of this planet’s unsolved mysteries. 





Since many readers complained about the previous piece “Mysteries of the 
Earth-Bound Human” we have pulled it and provided this replacement. The 
things we do for you people! 

It takes little courage to denounce men who believe they can harness the 
power of their minds to fly and use a space of universal consciousness to 
create world peace. And, in the long run, it is of little consequence. No one 
can recall the obscure psuedo-scientific claims of yesteryear. 

But take the idea that underneath the skull lie a series of organs for human 
traits like acquisitiveness and amorousness which bulge and change the 
shape of the head with dominance. The idea seems equally preposterous but 
it held real sway in its era — the Massachusetts Medical Association and the 
president of Harvard threw their weight behind it (Paul, 7) and phrenology 
continues to be remembered today. 

Such absurd ideas are not remnants of a bygone past — just replace “organs” 
with “genes” and you’ll have the new “science” of evolutionary psychology 
(formerly sociobiology), an absurdity which Harvard University’s own 
president has thrown the institution’s weight behind. And yet one rarely 
sees “pro-science skeptics” challenging its claims. Indeed, scientific magazines 
write them up with only minor questioning, saving their ire for those who 
dare criticize the ideas. 

But at least such fields have critics (and I count myself among them). There 
are related claims, however, that exercise much more power over our lives and 
(perhaps as a result) are far less challenged. One of their creators explained 
that they would “promote personal development”, “manage conflict”, and 
“increase human understanding worldwide.” (Paul, 121) But instead of Vedic 
science, she was talking about here creation: the Myers-Briggs personality test. 

I have written before about the failures of experiments to provide evidence 
in favor of our concepts of personality or intelligence and how despite this 



many continue to believe in them. One can discuss how even studies by 
proponents find that IQJacks validity and that 47% of people have a different 
Myers-Briggs personality type on a second administration of a test. But this 
somehow seems not to convince. So let us try another tack: let us look at 
how these tests are made. 

The history of the IQ_test — along with a number of other supposed ways 
of measuring “intelligence” — is detailed in Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The 
Mismeasure of Man. It was originally created by Alfred Binet to find children 
in French schools who might need special tutoring. Binet thought that by 
locating and helping these students, one could make sure that everyone learned 
all the material. Binet composed the test by throwing together whatever 
questions came to mind: things about shapes and numbers and words. He 
just wanted to see if some kids were having trouble, he made no attempt to 
make sure the result was a balanced measure of “intelligence”. 

Lewis Terman, a professor at Stanford University, imported the Binet test 
to America, added some more random things and mixed it all up a little, and 
called the result the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (a name which is still 
used today) 1 . One of the test’s first applications was American Psychological 
Association president Robert Yerkes’s attempt to classify the people recruited 
for the Army. Among the questions: 

• Crisco is a: patent medicine, disinfectant, toothpaste, food product 

• The number of a Kaffir’s legs is: 2, 4, 6, 8 

• Christy Mathewson is famous as a: writer, artist, baseball player, 

Recent immigrants, whose command of English might be understandably 
weak, were allowed to take a pictorial version: drawing “a rivet in a pocket 
knife, a filament in a light bulb, a horn on a phonograph, a net on a tennis 
court, and a ball in a bowler’s hand (marked wrong, Yerkes explained, if an 
examinee drew the ball in the alley, for you can tell from the bowler’s posture 
that he has not yet released the ball).” (Gould, 230) 

Terman, meanwhile, conducted a longitudinal study of the people his 
IQ_test marked as “gifted”. Joel Shurkin, based on exclusive access to the 
records, documented the full story in his book Termaris Kids. Among the 



study’s participants was a man named Jess Oppenheimer. “Gave the impression 
of being very pushy and forward although he did not show these characteristics 
during the interview,” wrote one ofTerman’s assistants. “I could detect no 
signs of a sense of a humor.” (Shurkin, 54) Oppenheimer went on to create 
and write the shows I Love Lucy and Get Smart. 

The story of personality tests is little better. In her book The Cult of Personality 
(recently republished as The Cult of Personality Testing), Annie Murphy Paul 
(a former senior editor for mass bi-monthly Psychology Today) describes the 
history of all the major personality tests. Take the Minnesota Multiphasic 
Personality Inventory (MMPI), which was created in a similar way to the 

The test was created by psychologist Starke Hathaway and neuropsychiatrist 
J. Charnley McKinley by simply coming up with a bunch of true-or-false 
statements that they thought might indicate whether the respondent had a 
mental illness. Among them: 

• I have never had any black, tarry-looking bowel movements. 

• I have had no difficulty starting or holding my urine. 

• I have never indulged in any unusual sexual practices. 

• There is something wrong with my sex organs. 

• I believe there is a Devil and a Hell in the afterlife. 

• Everything is turning out as the Bible said it would. 

• I think I would like to belong to a motorcycle club. 

• Often I feel as if there were a tight band around my head. 

• I loved my father. 

• I like to flirt. 

• I believe my sins are unpardonable. 

• I have a good appetite. 

• I think Lincoln was greater than Washington. 

• Women should not be allowed to drink in cocktail bars. 

• A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct. 

• If the money were right, I would like to work for a circus or carnival. 

• (Paul, 53) 

The resulting test was administered to the patients at the University of 
Minnesota mental hospital as well as the (presumably sane) staff there (all 



white, Protestant, Minnesotans who came to be known as the “Minnesota 
Normals”)- Statistical analysis was then done to determine which questions 
more accurately predicted whether the user had a mental illness and more 
specifically, what kind. 2 

This was quickly generalized: people who scored above-average on the 
scales for Hysteria or Depression (but not high enough to actually have a 
mental illness) could be said to have hysterical or depressive personalities, 
even though there was absolutely no evidence to support this leap (not that 
it was on particularly sturdy ground to begin with). 

The resulting test was used to analyze people in business, the army, court, 
high school, and at the doctor’s. It was “used to screen job applicants, offer 
vocational advice, settle custody disputes, and determine legal status.” (Paul, 
58f) And while the test engendered some backlash, it continues to be used 
frequently today, often as the a requirement for getting or keeping a job. Paul 
notes “the MMPI (in an updated version) is employed by 86% of clinical 
psychologists and administered, by one estimate, to 15 million Americans each 
year.” (63) For example, it is used by 60% of police departments to evaluate 
prospective officers. Meanwhile, studies show that such tests can reject as 
high as 60% of healthy applicants. 

This is but one example — and one chapter in Paul’s book — but all the 
others all have similar stories. An absurd test, concocted through absurd 
means, completely untested, ends up becoming a powerful societal force. All 
the more reason for us to speak out about them. 

October 28, 2005 

1. Incidentally, although Terman did not put his name on the test, his 
family continues to have a presence at Stanford. His son Frederick 
Emmons Terman was a professor of engineering (and later provost); the 
Terman Engineering Center, which was across the street from my dorm, 
is named in his honor. And down the hall from me in my dorm lived his 
daughter, who, in full disclosure, I ate meals with a couple times. 

2. Not that this methodology is necessarily flawed, although it leads to 
some interesting conclusions. Paul writes that in one experiment, the 
question "that yielded some of the most useful information" about 
whether someone had a fascist personality was: "Obedience and respect 
for authority are the most important virtues children should learn." 
(Paul, 147) 




Whenever someone wants to talk about how great our society is, one example 
that always seems to come up is our many innovative and powerful new drugs 
invented by the pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps it’s just the $54 billion 
a year the companies spend on marketing, much of it going to ads talking 
about how innovative and helpful drug companies are, bur it does seem like 
these life-saving wonder pills have really captured the public’s imagination. 

But in her new book, The Truth About the Drug Companies , Marcia Angell, 
former editor-in-chief of the respected New England Journal of Medicine, 
shows that much of what we thought about the drug companies is wrong. For 
one thing, they’re not innovative. Believe it or not, drug companies simply 
do not do research into major new drugs. All the real research is done at 
universities and funded by the government. 

Thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act, universities can then patent these medical 
discoveries made by their employees using public funding, which they then 
turn around and sell to the drug companies for a relative song. Often the 
universities have done all the work — including clinical trials — and drug 
companies just start up the manufacturing plants. 

Because the drug companies have bought exclusive patent rights, they can 
now charge whatever they like for these drugs without fear of competition. 
And what little research the drug companies do mostly involves coming up 
with “me too” drugs — modifying an existing drug a little bit (even things 
as minor as changing the color or coating it) and then filing new patents on 
the result so that the exclusive profits keep rolling in. Thanks to armies of 
lawyers and various FDA patent loopholes, drug companies can use various 
patent tricks to keep generic competitors away for years. 

Even when competitors do finally arrive, the drug company marketing 
campaigns start up, encouraging everyone to switch to their new, slightly- 
different-but-patented drug. For example, take Astro Zeneca’s heartburn drug 
Prilosec ($6 billion in annual sales): when its patent ran out, AstraZeneca 



took the inactive half off of Prilosec, repatented it, and marketed as Nexium. 
It then ran clinical trials which compared 20mg of Prilosec with 20mg of 
Nexium, but since half of Prilosec was inactive, this was like comparing lOmg 
of the old drug and 20mg of the new drug. Somewhat surprisingly, Nexium’s 
double dose appeared to be only slightly more effective, but AstraZeneca 
touted these results in a massive marketing campaign involving tons of ads 
and gobs of free samples, enough to get doctors to switch most prescriptions 
before the Prilosec patent ran out. 

These marketing campaigns are huge: $11 billion a year in free samples, over 
$6 billion on sales reps (one for every five doctors), $3 billion on vague ads to 
consumers. But on top of this are massive campaigns of deception: bribing 
doctors, bribing researchers, bribing universities, bribing HMOs, providing 
kickbacks, running “medical education courses” which state law requires 
doctors to attend, running in-hospital television networks which are one long 
drug ad, and funding deceptive studies (like the Nexium one) that wrongly 
make it appear that the company’s new drug has amazing beneficial properties. 

These studies are so pervasive that when the rare honest study is done, the 
results are incredible. The US government funded a massive study called 
ALLHAT (8 years, 42,000 people, 600 clinics) to compare different treatments 
for high blood pressure. It compared a series of different popular modern 
drugs (Norvasc, Cardura/doxazosin, Zestril/Prinivil/lisinopril) which worked 
in different ways and an “old time diuretic” or “water pill”. The results were 
stunning: the diuretic was more effective and had less side effects than the 
expensive fancy new drugs — less heart failure and fewer strokes, so much 
so that the Cardura part of the trial had to be stopped early since so many 
people were getting heart failure. These expensive new drugs weren’t just 
wasting people’s money (as much as $678 a year per person), they were 
seriously hurting them. 

But nobody prescribed diuretics, perhaps in part because nobody marketed 
them to doctors. Drug companies aren’t required by the FDA to compare 
their new drugs to older treatments, so doctors had no way to know which 
was more effective. And drug companies aren’t even required to publish the 
studies the FDA does require. For example, the study that led the FDA to 
approve antidepressants (like Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Serzone, and 
Effexor) found that placebos were 80% as effective. But these studies weren’t 



released until fifteen years later, when someone filed a Freedom of Information 
Act request against the FDA. There are even worse cases: for decades, women 
were prescribed estrogen and progesterone hormone replacement therapy 
because industry-sponsored studies said it would prevent heart disease. But 
a large NIH clinical trial found the therapy actually increases heart disease! 

Our utopia of miracle pills is now beginning to look a bit like a nightmare. 
Drug companies use our tax money to pay for their research, turn around 
and sell the results to us at high prices, spend the resulting profits on massive 
campaigns to mislead us about their effects, which then encourage doctors 
to prescribe an expensive pill which may not help much and might even 
make things worse. Year after year, drug companies are by far the most 
successful industry. They use their stunning profits to buy off politicians and 
propagandize the public into maintaining this state of affairs. Only by learning 
the true state of affairs can we begin to fight back. 

March 25, 2005 




Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging 
MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed 
Countries]? ...I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic 
waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to 
that. . . . countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted 

— Lawrence H. Summers 1 

On January 14, 2005, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers offered 
“some attempts at provocation” at a conference on “Diversifying the Science 
& Engineering Workforce”, specifically discussing “women’s representation in 
tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research 
institutions”. 2 

He begins by suggesting that under-representation isn’t always due to 

Catholics are substantially under-represented in investment banking, 
which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that 
white men are very substantially under-represented in the National 
Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially under- 
represented in farming and in agriculture. 

So, he says, we have to ask why women are under-represented and he offers 
three possibilities. The first is what he calls “the high-powered job hypothesis”, 
namely that “young women in their mid-twenties make a decision that they 
don’t want to have a job that they think about eighty hours a week”. (“Is our 
society right [in these expectations and imbalances]?” He tables the question.) 
The second is “differential availability of aptitude at the high end” — that 
there is a difference in the variability of “mathematical ability, scientific ability” 
that is “not plausibly culturally determined” which, by his rough calculations, 
means there are five times as many male math/science geniuses as there are 
women math/science geniuses. 



“I would far prefer to believe something else,” Summers says, but “the 
combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances 
probably explains a fair amount of this problem.” 

Could the differing variances be due to socialization? Summers doesn’t 
think so. He says that “a hundred different kibbutzes” each independently 
decided to reverse course from a sexual egalitarianism and let “the men . . . 
fix the tractors and the women . . . work in the nurseries”. And furthermore: 

... my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who 
were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves 
saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells 
me something. 

(Summers does not say whether two-person sample was also raised without 
TV and books and all the other images of socialization that say girls should 
play with baby dolls.) 

Is it discrimination? 

If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be 
very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not 
prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality 
people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating 
... I think one sees relatively little evidence of that. 

So, he says, the general problems of universities are those of the “high- 
powered job”, the specific problems of the sciences are due to natural varying 
ability. “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong,” but “empirical 
psychology” and “the data” say otherwise. And our personal prejudices have 
to bow before the objectivity of science. 

This is a tune that is by no means new. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in 
his fine book, The Mismeasure of Man, throughout history those who have 
tried to justify existing inequalities by blaming biological determinism have 
said the same thing. 

Paul Broca, for example, who carefully weighed numerous brains to see which 



groups were intelligent and which were not, was truly sad to discover that 
the brains of blacks were smaller than those of whites. But, he argued, there 
was nothing he could do: “There is no faith, however respectable, no interest, 
however legitimate, which must not accommodate itself to the progress of 
human knowledge and bend before truth.” 

Despite such lofty principles, Gould shows that, quite aside from the false 
assumption that brain size is related to intelligence, Broca repeatedly and 
consistently manipulated his data to reach these conclusions. Gould believes 
such manipulation was unconscious, even though at times it was quite extreme. 
(As one example, Broca threw out entire systems of measurement when the 
inferior races scored too well on them.) 

The tone is a theme through Gould’s book, so it is no surprise to see it 
reappear today. But is it any more true? 

Broca’s major error was assuming that the size of someone’s brain could tell 
you how intelligent they are. This is of course incorrect — people’s brain size 
is mostly determined by the size and build of the rest of their body — and 
trouble the assumption seems absurd. Yet we believe in a notion that is just as 
silly — that IQtests and math exams measure some sort of innate intelligence. 

In the present context, a study by Claude Steele brings some of the problems 
into sharp relief. (I am working here from Steele’s chapter in Young, Gifted, 
and Black.) Steele, with Steven Spencer and Diane Quinn, took some of the 
best and most dedicated math students they could find and gave them an 
extremely difficult math test. The men performed more than three and a half 
times as well as the women — an enormous gap. Then they gave students the 
same test, but told them this was a special test in which women always did as 
well as men. The gap closed almost entirely, with women’s scores increasing 
dramatically. (Steele’s research shows similar effects with other victims of 
stereotypes, like blacks.) 

Steele suggests that women’s scores are depressed by “stereotype threat” — a 
woman comes across a hard problem that they have trouble solving, and they 
begin to worry that people might think they’re having trouble at math because 
they’re female, and they begin to worry that this might be true. (Needless to 
say, comments like Summers’s can’t do much to alleviate these fears.) When 



they’re told the stereotypes can’t apply, the fears go away and they perform fine. 

But the mechanisms involved are unimportant for our purposes. The key 
point is that the supposedly objective examination measure of intelligence 
is seriously flawed, even on a subject as supposedly objective as a math test. 
These tests are not just measuring intelligence; at the very least they’re also 
measuring something like self-confidence. 

As Gould argues, we are tempted to measure things and then we are tempted 
to assume the numbers that result refer to something real — that tests in 
math measure something called “mathematical ability”. But this is a logical 
leap — the case must be carefully proven. There’s no evidence that such a 
thing as “math ability” even exists, let alone that it can be measured. 

Biological determinists like to respond to such arguments by saying that 
the speaker is denying the influence of biology, when all reasonable people 
know that both biology and environment have an impact — say 40% biology, 
60% environment. But it is the determinists who are missing the point. Skills 
cannot be divided up in so absurd a manner. 

Let us put aside brains for a second and imagine the arm muscle. Some 
people are born with a naturally skinny body type that doesn’t build much 
arm muscle. Others naturally build muscle like crazy. Clearly biology plays 
a role. But it’s absurd to say that it’s 40% biology, or any other number — a 
muscular person whose arm is paralyzed will not be very muscular at all, while 
a weak person who works out incessantly will have huge biceps. 

It’s not hard to see how the brain could work the same way: people are 
born with natural tendencies, but work or environment can quickly change 
this “default” destiny. 

In a real twist of irony, it turns out that it is exactly this confusion that causes 
the gender gap. Further research by Carol Dweck has investigated whether 
students believe that “mathematical ability” is a learned skill or an innate gift. 
A simple study shows the shocking effects of this belief. Students were given 
an obscure non-verbal IQ^style test that was designed to be easy for their 
age group. Afterwards, half were told “You got a great score. You must have 
worked really hard” and half were told “You got a great score. You must be 



really good at this. "Then they asked kids if they wanted to try harder questions 
that might help them learn more. The ones who were praised for effort were 
happy to — one effort-based kid (in another study) rubbed his hands together, 
licked his lips, and exclaimed “I always love a challenge!” — but intelligence- 
based kids tried to avoid it, perhaps fearing they’d look stupid. 

They were then given the harder problems, much too hard for them to solve. 
Then they were given more easy problems again. The gift kids did much 
worse on the third set of problems. When asked if they wanted to take more 
problems home, they said they already had them at home (an absurd lie). By 
contrast, the skill kids not only asked for some to take home, one even asked 
for the name of the tests “so my mom can buy more when I run out”. The 
kids were also asked to write a note about the tests to other kids who might 
take them. The notes were anonymous, but there was a little place to put your 
score. Nearly 40% of the gift kids lied and exaggerated their scores. All this 
from just one little sentence — the kids were otherwise identical. 

In other words, Dweck says, telling kids they’re smart makes the stupid 
and liars. 

Dweck’s observations of classrooms find that boys are more often chided 
on the basis of effort (“Johnny, I know you’d do better if you just spent more 
time on this”), perhaps leading girls to infer that their ability is innate. Her 
studies find that girls are more likely to believe their ability is innate than 
boys and that it is these girls who are the cause of the gender gap in ability. 
Teaching these girls that mathematical ability comes from hard work can 
eliminate the gap. 

[Personal note: Both Dweck and Steele have been recently hired away from 
Stanford and presented their results to my class.] 

Looking at the long history of how even supposedly scientific evidence of 
the differences intelligence between groups has been false and distorted, one 
ought to be very careful before reviving such claims. Summers was not only 
not careful in his evidence, he didn’t even bother to present evidence. 

There are few worse things an intellectual can do than present false claims 
without evidence. If you present true claims, of course, there is no problem. 



And if you present false claims with evidence, one can evaluate the quality 
of the evidence. But if you simply state something as true, it has a way of 
seeping unquestioned into people’s heads. And how much worse, then, to 
spread these falsehoods on such a subject, where they can do great harm. 

I’ll close with a bit from the question period after Summers’s talk: 

Qi I noticed [this is] being recorded so I hope that we’ll be able to have 
a copy of it. That would be nice. 

LHS: We’ll see. (LAUGHTER) 

1 . http : / /www . whirledbank . org/ourwords/ summers . html 

2 . http : / /www . president . harvard . edu/ speeches/2005/ nber . html 





Philip Zimbardo, the creator of the famed Stanford Prison Experiment (don’t 
worry, I’ll describe it later), is giving a lecture on terrorism and Abu Ghraib. 

Zimbardo notes that he was a high-school classmate of Stanley Milgram, 
perhaps the best-known social psychologist. Milgram was the one who 
conducted the classic experiments on obedience to authority. He would invite 
a subject in and explain to them that they were helping him research the 
effects of memory. A confederate would be hooked up to an electrical chair 
in another room. The subject would then be asked by the lab-coat-wearing 
experimenter to give increasingly large electric shocks to the confederate 
as punishment for getting the memory questions wrong. In response, the 
confederate would scream in agony, ask to be let out, shout that he had a 
heart condition, and finally just stop responding. 

At the time, conventional wisdom was that only a few people — the 
sadists — would go all the way, following the orders to increase the voltage 
even after the confederate stopped responding. Milgram quickly proved 
conventional wisdom wrong: 65% followed their orders and went all the way. 
As Zimbardo notes, the popular theory of the time was largely dispositional: 
people do things because that’s their nature. Milgram provided clear evidence 
of situationism. 

Milgram went on to do other pioneering research, including the small 
world experiment, where he would give people in Kansas a note for a friend 
in Cambridge, MA and ask them to get it there simply by passing it through 
friends. Milgram found that, again despite conventional wisdom of the time, 
it usually only six intermediaries to make it, which of course gave rise to the 
phrase “six degrees of separation”. 

Sadly, Milgram died of a heart attack at only 51. 

Milgram likely moved on from the obedience experiments because they 



were highly controvertial — many considered them seriously unethical, even 
though Milgram went to great lengths to inform the subjects the true purpose 
of the experiment afterwards and make sure they were alright. Zimbardo, 
however, follows that same path. 

Milgram did a number of variants on the Obedience experiments — moving 
subjects closer to their victims, trying the experiments in an office building 
away from the prestige of Yale, using women instead of men — but most 
had little or no success in lowering compliance rates. Two things, however, 
did change compliance rates. First, if the subject saw other subjects resisting, 
they became willing to resist as well. Second, if the subject did not throw the 
switches directly, but simply supervised someone who did, they became far 
more willing to continue. 

The two discoveries clearly have larger societal messages (just a few people 
resisting can help mobilize others, but increasing bureaucratization can 
increase compliance in the name of evil), which of course have been confirmed 
by larger societal studies. 

For this, Zimbardo draws the concept of the “good guard” — the man who 
doesn’t hurt anyone but simply does his job and doesn’t interfere with the 
hurting. Tie good guards, Zimbardo notes, are key to the whole thing because 
if they showed signs of resistance the bad guards would likely begin to resist 
too. (Again, it’s not hard to extrapolate this to society.) 

Zimbardo continues surveying the research and lays out the ten lessons he’s 
drawn from it on how to get people to commit evil: 

1. Create an ideology where the ends justify the means 

2. Get a contract from the subjects where they agree to comply 

3. Give participants meaningful roles with clear social value 

4. Have the rules be vague and changing 

5. Relabel actors and actions (“order control”, not guards; “monsters”, not 

6. Diffuse responsibility so subjects don’t feel liable 

7. Start small but slowly increase the requirements, step by step 

8. Make the leader seem compassionate at first 

9. Permit verbal dissent (“I don’t want to do this; I feel bad”) as long as 



subjects continue complying 

10. Make it difficult to exit 

Further experiments find that people’s inhibitions will be lowered if they or 
the subjects are “de-individualized” (e.g., they wear uniforms and masks; the 
subjects wear bags over their heads). In numerous experiments, this doubled 
the harm participants would voluntarily commit. (Anthropological studies 
confirm this, finding that cultures with costumes and masks are more violent.) 

Similarly, changing how people think of their actions is key. In one 
experiment, where the experimenter called the victims “nice guys” the 
amount of punishment subjects inflicted went down. But when he called 
them “monsters” it went up. 

Zimbardo put together all that he had learned into one experiment, the 
Stanford Prison Experiment, to see how far things could go. Volunteer subjects 
were recruited and half assigned to be prisoners and half assigned to be guards 
so that there would be no differences between the two groups. The prisoners 
were arrested at their home and taken to recently-redecorated basement of 
the Stanford Psychology department, where they were imprisoned. 

There were no windows, so prisoners could not gauge time. Prisoners were 
strip-searched and forced to wear dress-like clothes. They were given leg 
shackles, a constant reminder of their status. Guards were given uniforms and 
mirror sunglasses (so no one could read their emotions) as well as minimal 
requirements or training. 

On only the second day of the experiment, the prisoners tried to resist. 
Guards responded by calling in reinforcements, attacking the prisoners with 
fire extinguishers, placing the leaders in solitary confinement, and harassing 
the rest. They also created a privileged cell for the prisoners who most resisted 
the rebellion, with special benefits. The next day, they reversed things, putting 
some of the leaders in the privileged cell (to imply the leader had sold out). 

Soon enough, prisoners began going crazy. Guards became so evil and violent 
that the study had to be prematurely ended. 

The relevance to Abu Ghraib should be obvious. And, sure enough, Zimbardo 



got a chance to testify before the court trying one of the Abu Ghraib guards, 
arguing that his sentence should be lowered because, as his research had 
shown, few could have resisted the powerful situational influences, which 
were surely even more powerful at a real prison with (presumably at least 
some) real criminals. 

He went on to talk a bit about how the administration had weaponized fear 
with things like the terror alert system. The reason Al-Qaeda hadn’t attacked 
again, he suggested, was because Bush was doing their job for them, scaring 
the population with vague threats without clear solutions. 

October 31, 2004 




Watching the coverage of this week’s Democratic National Convention, 
I’ve seen endless amounts of media handwringing about the coverage of this 
week’s Democratic National Convention. Why are people turning to comedy 
news like The Daily Show? Why are people turning to partisan outlets like 
Fox News and talk radio? Why are people reading untalented webloggers? 

After some consideration, Big Media has concluded it’s the people’s fault. 
They’ve become to partisan, shallow, and stupid to handle healthy, traditional 
news, so they’ve abandoned it for lesser outlets. While this storyline is no 
doubt convenient for the people espousing it (see, we’re not doing anything 
wrong — it’s their fault!) it doesn’t seem quite right to me. The actual answer, 
which lies unspoken between the lines of all discussion on the subject, is much 
simpler: people are abandoning Big Media because it sucks. 

Notice how the media simply refuses to acknowledge this possibility. 
Although evidence of the elite media’s conservative bias is overwhelming 
(name one overtly liberal TV talk show host or regular pundit; read What 
Liberal Media? if you’re still not convinced), the only kind of bias the media 
will acknowledge is a potential liberal one. Every article about webloggers 
ends with the platitude that bloggers won’t be replacing journalists anytime 
soon. And when John Stewart was about to suggest that the regular media 
simply refused to do their job and call BS when they saw it, Ted Koppel 
quickly ended the interview. 

No, in denial, Big Media will never admit it has a problem. 

But it does. America is the only country with a media that refuses to analyze 
the news and draw conclusions. Instead, in the service of some notional 
“objectivity”, American media will only repeat “facts” — that is, quotes 
provided by both sides. There is no memory, no analysis, no context, no 
conclusions, no opinions, no humanity at all. Is it any surprise that Americans 
look elsewhere for their news? 

Big Media has a prepared response. Why, they say, the very pillars of 



civilization would crumble if opinion were allowed in the news! This is absurd. 
First, as I have noted, practically every other country allows analysis in their 
news, and they seem to be doing fine. Second, we already have opinion, it just 
comes in the form of vapid and partisan pundits. Letting actual journalists 
give us their opinions would certainly be an improvement over those guys. 
Third, Americans are already leaving Big Media for partisan sources or no 
news sources at all. Surely giving your viewers opinionated news is better 
than having no viewers at all. 

This is not to say we should throw accuracy out the window and listen to 
whatever lies make us feel good. No, journalism’s goal should be to be fair and 
accurate (the opposite of false and misleading), not “objective” and “balanced”. 
A journalist should tell the whole truth and not try to mislead the reader. 
But as long they do so, they should be free to give whatever context and draw 
whatever conclusions they feel are appropriate. Once you’ve given side A and 
side B a fair shake, there’s no harm — indeed, there’s a great service — in 
telling which side you’ve chosen and why. 

It seems clear to me that media with context and humanity is more popular 
than that with soulless objectivity. If Big Media wants to stop losing viewers 
to these supposedly less careful sources of information, they can start by 
adopting these goals as their own. 

July 30, 2004 





Since many have said that my view of copyright and patent law is childish 
and held merely because I grew up with Napster and do not write for a living, 
I thought I’d investigate some more respectable views on the subject. And 
who better than those of our thoughtful third President, Thomas Jefferson? 

Judging from his letter to Isaac McPherson 1 , Jefferson’s thoughts are thus: 

No one seriously disputes that property is a good idea, but it’s bizarre 
to suggest that ideas should be property. Nature clearly wants ideas to 
be free! While you can keep an idea to yourself, as soon as you share it 
anyone can have it. And once they do, it’s difficult for them to get rid of 
it, even if they wanted to. Like air, ideas are incapable of being locked up 
and hoarded. 

And no matter how many people share it, the idea is not diminished. 
When I hear your idea, I gain knowledge without diminishing anything 
of yours. In the same way, if you use your candle to light mine, I get light 
without darkening you. Like fire, ideas can encompass the globe without 
lessening their density. 

Thus, inventions cannot be property. Sure, we can give inventors an 
exclusive right to profit, perhaps to encourage them to invent new useful 
things, but this is our choice. If we decide not to, nobody can object. 

Accordingly, England was the only country with such a law until 
the United States copied her. In other countries, monopolies may be 
granted occasionally by special act, but there is no general system. And 
this doesn’t seem to have hurt them any — those countries seem just as 
inventative as ours. 

(I am not directly quoting Jefferson here, I am translating what he said 
to modern English and omitting a bit, but I have not put any words in his 



mouth — Jeferson said all these things.) 

The first thing to note is that Jefferson may have been the first to say, in 
essence, “information wants to be free!” (Jefferson attributed this will to nature, 
not information, but the sentiment was the same.) Thus, all those people who 
dismiss this claim as absurd have some explaining to do. 

The second is that while Jefferson repeatedly says “idea”, his logic applies 
equally to, say, a catchy tune or phrase and thus pretty much everything we 
commonly call “intellectual property law” (mostly copyright, trademarks, 
and patents). 

The third is that, surprisingly (especially to me!), Jefferson is just as crazy 
as I am: 

• By their very nature, ideas cannot be property. 

• The government has no duty to make laws about them. 

• The laws we do make aren’t all that successful. 

If Jefferson wasn’t happy with the comparatively modest laws of 1813, can 
anyone seriously suggest that he wouldn’t be furious with the expansionist laws 
of today? Forget the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons, 
Jefferson would be out there advocating armed resistance and impeaching 
the Justices that voted against Eldred! 2 (OK, maybe not, but he’d certainly 
do more than write copyright licenses.) 

It’s true that in Jefferson’s day there were no movies or networks, but there 
were certainly books and inventions. People made their livelihoods as writers or 
inventors. It’s difficult to argue that Jefferson would change his mind now on 
economic grounds — if anything, I suspect that upon seeing the ease of sharing 
ideas over the Internet, he would argue for less restrictive laws — not more. 

Jefferson thought these laws were contrary to human nature when 
they only affected people with large workshops or commercial printing 
presses — imagine how angry he would be when he saw that these laws 
restricted practically everyone, even doing perfectly unobjectionable things 
(like teaching your AIBO to dance or making a documentary 3 ). 

Now perhaps folks will find Jefferson as easy an argument for ad hominem 



attack as they found me. And just because Jefferson said it doesn’t make it 
true — obviously his views were even the subject of some discussion at the 
time. But when the suggestions of our third president are called the “a ball 
of self-justification”, “bullshit”, “the far left”, “selfishness”, “shallow”, that of 
a “moron”, “disgusting”, a “misunderstanding” of the law (!), and “immoral” 4 , 
you sort of have to stop and wonder: what in the world is going on? 

January 12, 2004 

1 . http : / /press -pubs . uchicago . edu/ founders/documents/ al_8_8sl2 . html 

2 . 

3 . http : / /www . oreillynet . com/ pub/ a/policy/ 2002/08/15/ lessig . html?page=3 

4 . http : / /www . docuverse . com/blog/donpark/EntryViewPage . 
aspx?guid=7a592614-ff2 1-48 17-b7c0-3ea9a7007 122 





The New York Times Upfront asked me to contribute a short piece to a point/ 
counterpoint they were having on downloading. (I would defend downloading, 
of course.) I thought I managed to write a pretty good piece, especially for 
its size and audience, in a couple days. But then I found out my piece was 
cut because the Times had decided not to tell kids to break the law. So, from 
the graveyard, here it is. 

Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing. If I shoplift an album 
from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a 
song, no one loses it and another person gets it. There’s no ethical problem. 

Music companies blame a fifteen percent drop in sales since 2000 on 
downloading. But over the same period, there was a recession, a price hike, a 
25% cut in new releases, and a lack of popular new artists. Factoring all that 
in, maybe downloading increases sales. And 90% of the catalog of the major 
labels isn’t for sale anymore. The Internet is the only way to hear this music. 

Even if downloading did hurt sales, that doesn’t make it unethical. Libraries 
and video stores (neither of which pay per rental) hurt sales too. Is it unethical 
to use them? 

Downloading may be illegal. But 60 million people used Napster and only 
50 million voted for Bush or Gore. We live in a democracy. If the people want 
to share files then the law should be changed to let them. 

And there’s a fair way to change it. A Harvard professor found that a 
$60/yr. charge for broadband users would make up for all lost revenues. 
The government would give it to the affected artists and, in return, make 
downloading legal, sparking easier- to-use systems and more shared music. The 
artists get more money and you get more music. What’s unethical about that? 




• “a fifteen percent drop in sales since 2000”: This is from the RIAA’s 
own chart 1 . In 1999, they sold 938. 9M CDs, in 2002 they sold 
803.3M. (938.9-803.3)/938.9 ~= .14 (so it’s really closer to 14%, 
but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say 15%). 

“a 25% cut in new releases”: It depends on how you count. The 
RIAA says they released 38,900 new releases in 1999. According 
to SoundScan 2 the RIAA released 31,734 new releases in 2001, 
leading to an 18% drop. This isn’t really fair, since we’re using 
RIAA numbers for 1999 and SoundScan numbers for 2001, and 
SoundScan probably doesn’t count as many albums as the RIAA 
does. However, the RIAA said in early 2003 that they released 
27,000 new albums the previously year. Apparently embarassed by 
this information, they’ve since removed it from their website. But if 
you use their numbers, you get a 31% drop. I’ve split the difference 
and called it a 25% cut. But I could change this to 30% or 20% if 
you wanted; I don’t think it would change the argument. 

• “90% of the major label’s catalog isn’t available for sale”: speech by 
Ken Hertz 3 

• “60 million people used Napster”: according to the New York Times 4 

• “50 million voted for Bush or Gore”: according to CNN 5 

• “A Harvard professor found that a $60 per year tax on broadband 
connections would make up for all lost music and movie sales”: 
see Terry Fisher, Promises to Keep 6 . “Assuming that the ISPs pass 
through to consumers the entire amount of the tax, that average 
fee would rise by $4.88 per month” (p. 31) 4.88*12 ~= 59, so I say 

January 08, 2004 

1 . http: / /www. 002 .pdf 

2 . http : / /www . businessweek . com/ technology /content/ f eb2 003/ 

3 . http : / /www. xeni . net/ images/boingboing/speech . htm 

4 . 

5 . http: / / 





I’d like to take some time to recognize some especially brave Americans. 
These men and women work long hours, face harsh criticism, and receive 
little praise, yet they continue to do their work because they know it is right. 
I refer to, of course, the censors. 

The folks at organizations at the Parents Television Council have the 
unrewarding job of watching endless quantities of television, carefully 
watching for sexual behavior (shown or implied). Often, they have to rewind 
and rewatch especially salacious scenes several times to understand it fully, 
before summarizing it and marking its location down in their notes for 
future reference. The task is arduous, and often requires hours of intense 
concentration, but yet these fearless warriors carry on. 

Brave members of the ChildCare Action Project go see every new movie, 
marking down each every swear word spoken, every violent act, each 
appearance of drugs, and, again, all sexual content. And what rigor and 
detail! You’d think that an organization like this would see the name, or at 
most the trailer, for Austin Powers: Goldmember and write it off. But not 
these guys! They continue to sit through the entire movie, taking notes on 
everything. A lesson to us all. 

Meanwhile the American Decency Association carefully goes through 
the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, searching their pages for every last bare 
butt and breast, marking down the page numbers on which they appear, and 
putting the results on the Internet. But just doing this once isn’t enough for 
them. Instead, they make sure to get a copy of every issue, and do the same 
for all of them. What persistance! 

Why do these people take on this unrewarding job? We may never know. All I 
can do is think of them, sitting there in front of their television, movie screen, or 
nude photographs, carefully examining offensive and sexual content, and thank 
them for doing what most of us could not stomach. Continue on, brave censors. 

November 28, 2003 




When I first started studying the First Amendment — nearly a decade 
ago — I read about the different theories trying to make sense of it. Some 
scholars argued the First Amendment’s goal was to create a robust marketplace 
of ideas: if everyone could share their opinion, the truth could come out 
through robust debate. Others concluded the First Amendment was a sort 
of logical safeguard: by protecting speech and assembly and petitions for 
redress of grievances, it guaranteed people the right to work against laws 
they disapprove of, kind of the way the Second Amendment is said to be a 
bulwark against totalitarianism. 

111656 aren’t just theoretical debates; the theories have practical consequences 
for how one interprets that key amendment. If you believe it’s for a marketplace 
of ideas, then you will support regulation aimed at correcting market failures 
by suppressing certain kinds of problematic speech. If you believe it’s a political 
safeguard, then you will not be too worried about speech regulation aimed 
at clearly nonpolitical speech. 

Now, I’m not quite sure why such a theory is needed. The First Amendment 
always struck me as perfectly clear: “Congress shall make no law.” No law 
meant no law (at least with regard to content; I’m more lenient when it comes 
to regulating other aspects). But if one has to have a theory, it struck me the 
right one was something completely different: Because We Can. 

The Framers were very skeptical of government. The system they designed 
was full of checks and fetters, of which the First Amendment is probably the 
most extreme (unless you believe in a libertarian conception of the Tenth). 
They saw government as a necessary evil; they were willing to accept it, but 
they wanted to constrain it where they could. 

And speech is a very obvious way to constrain it. A government needs to 
be able to stop violence and make war and so on or its people will get very 
badly hurt. But there’s no reason it has to stop speech. As the old saying goes, 
sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Words 



do hurt, of course, but theirs is a tolerable pain. People, and society, march on 
even in the face of grievous insults. And so the Framers decided to exclude 
this class of regulation from the government’s ambit. Not because speech is 
particularly good, but because it’s not particularly bad. Because it’s one thing 
they could safely exclude. Because we can. 

The implications of this theory for interpretation are obvious: they lead to 
the most expansive conception of the First Amendment compatible with 
the other goals of government: a stable democratic body to promote the 
general welfare, and so on. That’s certainly further than any court heretofore 
has gone and probably a bit further than I’d personally prefer, but isn’t that 
what fetters are for? 

October 20, 2009 




Some people start their day by reading The New York Times. Others end 
it by watching the nightly news. Some get it from The Daily Show. Others 
download it from a variety weblogs. Some keep up-to-the-minute by following 
CNN. Others have instant news updates automatically text messaged to their 
phone. But everybody seems to agree: it’s a citizen’s responsibility to keep up 
with the news. Everybody except me. 

I think following the news is a waste of time. 

Some people agree with me on a small scale. Some point out that the cable 
channels are obsessed with bizarre crimes that have little larger impact, that 
they worry too much about horse-race coverage of politics, that too much of 
the news is filled with PR-inserted nonsense. But they do this because they 
think these are aberrations; that underneath all this, the news is worth saving. 
I simply go one step further: I think none of it is worthwhile. 

Let us look at the front page of today’s New York Times , the gold standard 
in news. In the top spot there is a story about Republicans feuding among 
themselves. There is a photo of soldiers in Iraq. A stock exchange chief must 
return S100M. There is a concern about some doctors over-selling a nerve 
testing system. There is a threat from China against North Korea. There is 
a report that violence in Iraq is rising. And there is concern about virtual 
science classes replacing real ones. 

None of these stories have relevance to my life. Reading them may be 
enjoyable, but it’s an enjoyable waste of time. They will have no impact on 
my actions one way or another. 

Most people will usually generally concede this point, but suggest that 
there’s something virtuous about knowing it anyway, that it makes me a better 
citizen. They point out that newspapers are a key part of our democracy, that 
by exposing wrong-doing to the people, they force the wrong-doers to stop. 



This seems to be true, but the curious thing is that I’m never involved. The 
government commits a crime, the New York Times prints it on the front page, 
the people on the cable chat shows foam at the mouth about it, the government 
apologizes and commits the crime more subtly. It’s a valuable system — I 
certainly support the government being more subtle about committing crimes 
(well, for the sake of argument, at least) — but you notice how it never involves 
me? It seems like the whole thing would work just as well even if nobody 
ever read the Times or watched the cable chat shows. It’s a closed system. 

There is voting, of course, but to become an informed voter all one needs to do 
is read a short guide about the candidates and issues before the election. There’s 
no need to have to suffer through the daily back-and-forth of allegations and 
counter-allegations, of scurrilous lies and their refutations. Indeed, reading a 
voter’s guide is much better: there’s no recency bias (where you only remember 
the crimes reported in the past couple months), you get to hear both sides of 
the story after the investigation has died down, you can actually think about 
the issues instead of worrying about the politics. 

Others say that sure, most of the stuff in the news isn’t of use, but occasionally 
you’ll come across some story that will lead you to actually change what you’ve 
been working on. But really, how plausible is this? Most people’s major life 
changes don’t come from reading an article in the newspaper; they come 
from reading longer- form essays or thoughtful books, which are much more 
convincing and detailed. 

Which brings me to my second example of people agreeing with me 
on the small scale. You’ll often hear TV critics say that CNN’s up-to- 
the-minute reporting is absurd. Instead of saying, “We have unconfirmed 
reports that — This just in! We now have confirmed reports that those 
unconfirmed reports have been denied. No, wait! There’s a new report denying 
the confirmation of the denial of the unconfirmed report.” and giving viewers 
whiplash, they suggest that the reporters simply wait until a story is confirmed 
before reporting it and do commentary in the meantime. 

But if that’s true on a scale of minutes, why longer? Instead of watching 
hourly updates, why not read a daily paper? Instead of reading the back and 
forth of a daily, why not read a weekly review? Instead of a weekly review, 
why not read a monthly magazine? Instead of a monthly magazine, why not 



read an annual book? 

With the time people waste reading a newspaper every day, they could have 
read an entire book about most subjects covered and thereby learned about 
it with far more detail and far more impact than the daily doses they get 
dribbled out by the paper. But people, of course, wouldn’t read a book about 
most subjects covered in the paper, because most of them are simply irrelevant. 

But finally, I’d like to argue that following the news isn’t just a waste of time, 
it’s actively unhealthy. Edward Tufte notes that when he used to read the 
New York Times in the morning, it scrambled his brain with so many different 
topics that he couldn’t get any real intellectual work done the rest of the day. 

The news’s obsession with having a little bit of information on a wide variety 
of subjects means that it actually gets most of those subjects wrong. (One 
need only read the blatant errors reported in the corrections page to get some 
sense of the more thorough-going errors that must lie beneath them. And, 
indeed, anyone who has ever been in the news will tell you that the news 
always gets the story wrong.) Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant 
makes us less trusting people. Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day 
makes us less reflective thinkers. Its obsession with surfaces makes us shallow. 

This is not simply an essay meant to provoke; I genuinely believe what I 
write. I have not followed the news at least since I was 13 (with occasional 
lapses on particular topics). My life does not seem to be impoverished for it; 
indeed, I think it has been greatly enhanced. But I haven’t found many other 
people who are willing to take the plunge. 

October 20, 2006 




For a long time it seemed like everything I heard about Google was even 
cooler than the last. Wow, it’s a great search engine! Wow, they’re not sleazy 
like other companies! Wow, they treat their hackers well! Wow, they are 

The feeling peaked sometime last year when I was almost rolling on the floor 
hoping to work at Google. And I do mean peaked. Everything I’ve heard 
since then has been downhill, each time I hear about it Google seems less 
cool. I’m not saying the company is imminently doomed or that you should 
sell your shares, but I definitely don’t think it’s going to get any cooler. 

Google is run like a socialist state. Its citizens are treated extremely well. 
There’s free food, free doctors, free massages, free games, a limited workweek, 
etc. There are ministries to give projects free promotion and support. The 
government tries to avoid getting too much in people’s lives. And Google is 
always coming up with more perks to give away. (There’s also a strong class 
hierarchy, with abused temps and powerful acquirees.) 

The problem with a system like this is that it’s necessarily a bubble. Everybody 
inside gets treated grandly, but the outside world gets nothing. Indeed, because 
of Google’s notorious secrecy, they barely even get to talk to the people inside. 
A friend who’s a prominent free software developer says that every community 
member who’s joined Google has stopped contributing to public projects. 
It’s so bad, he says, that they’re thinking of banning Google from buying a 
booth at their next conference. They can’t afford to lose any more developers. 

Which means that Google has to be careful about who they hire, but since 
they’re growing so fast they need to hire people as quickly as possible. It’s an 
impossible bind — you can hire lots of people or you can hire really good 
people, but even a company as prominent as Google is going to have a hard 
time doing both. 

The solution, of course, is to pop the bubble. There’s no reason being part of 
Google has to be a binary decision. Google has a wide variety of resources and 



while there are some they can’t really give away to everyone (e.g. massages), 
there are others that should be easy (e.g. servers). Unfortunately for them, 
Google’s mindset is so obviously set that this will never happen. Even a 
company as woeful as Amazon is already kicking their but in this space, giving 
away storage space and computer power, with more in the works. 

But let’s imagine you had the resources to do this right, what would you do? 
(I feel like I’m giving away a valuable secret here, but since nobody listens to 
me anyway, I doubt it will make any difference.) The right thing is to build 
not a bubble, with it’s binary in-or-out choice, but to build a gradient, with 
shades of resources you make available as people achieve success. 

So you have this organization dedicated to building cool web apps.The first 
thing you do is you start giving away free food in the middle of San Francisco. 
You have a nice cozy area with tables and bathrooms and Wi-Fi and anyone 
interested in starting a web site is encouraged to drop by and hang out. There 
they can eat, chat, hack, get feedback, get suggestions, get help. 

Then you give them free hosting. Servers and bandwidth are cheap, good 
projects are invaluable. But not only will you host their app for free, throwing 
in servers to scale it as necessary, but you’ll pay them for the privilege of 
hosting. Indeed, you’ll pay them proportionately to the amount of traffic they 
get, in exchange for the right to run ads on it someday. 

So now you’ve got all the bright, smart young things who want to start 
companies starting them on your servers, with clear and unambiguous 
incentives: get traffic, get paid. They don’t need to worry about impressing 
anyone with their idea; anyone can use the hosting. And they don’t need to 
sell out to investors anymore; as their traffic grows, you’ll already be giving 
them the cash to grow the business. 

Most of these sites, of course, will probably be failures. But who cares? 
Sites that don’t get much traffic don’t use up much in the way of resources. 
Meanwhile, a couple of the sites will actually take off. So what do you do 
with those? Give them more resources. 

Put your promotional team behind them to spread the word about the ideas. 
Have your web designers, database jockeys, and JavaScript hotshots help 



them fix up the site. Encourage promising young programmers interested in 
helping out with something to write a feature or two. 

And — this is where the gradient comes in — as they become more successful, 
you give them more resources. Let them move into the apartment building 
above to food/hangout space, so they can get more facetime with fellow 
successful hackers. Give them free offices to work in. Provide free massages 
and exercise equipment. Have your PR team set up interviews with the major 
media. Integrate their site with your other sites. Plus, of course, they’re getting 
paid more for more traffic the whole time. 

Some of the sites will be huge hits, another YouTube or Facebook. The 
founders will be raking in millions from the traffic. And at some point, they’ll 
get tired of running the site and they’ll let it go. You’ll be there to take it over, 
slap some ads on it to recoup the investment, and give it to some new, junior 
developers to maintain and improve. And the cycle continues. 

(Bonus for the truly adventurous: run the whole thing as a non-profit and 
have all the applications involved be open source.) 

A bubble like Google can hire only so many people and there’s no way of 
picking only the ones which will be successes. But everyone can be part of a 
gradient and the successes simply rise to the top. I know which one I’d work for. 

Thanks to Emmett Shear for discussion and suggestions. 

October 26, 2006 




The simplest way to do something, of course, is to do it yourself. But there’s 
lots of stuff to be done and not enough you to do it. You can get around 
this a little bit by finding friends who are interested in doing some of it 
themselves, but at some point you’re going to have to start “delegating”, or 
getting somebody else to do it. 

Now you’re moving up in the world. If you’re a decent manager, instead 
of running one project, you can run five or ten. Instead of simply directing 
your own labor, you can direct whole groups of people. Of course, it’ll still 
be people doing what you wanted, but — funny thing — people are smart 
enough that they’ll begin to get the gist of things on their own and, if you 
do it right, your delegation will become an organization. You can disappear 
for a week and things will keep on marching. 

But make no mistake, even those organizations are still following the will 
of their erstwhile founder. Even as they get big, they betray facets of the 
founder’s personality. The most obvious is in who is respected. My friend 
Emmett Shear has a theory that in each company only one class of people 
can be in charge and it’s going to be the class of people the founders are in. 
At Apple, for example, the UI designers are in charge, because Jobs obsesses 
over UI design. At Google, it’s the programmers, because Larry and Sergey 
used to code. Even though the founders aren’t directly involved in every 
project, their surrogates still win the day. 

Now the problem comes when the organization wants to grow beyond its 
founder. This is most common on non-profits, where they even have a name 
for it: founder’s syndrome. See, once you have all these people carrying out 
your bidding, it’s pretty difficult to want to give that up. Maybe you can have 
them do more projects, maybe you can give them more flexibility in what they 
choose, but I can’t think of a single story where the guy in charge voluntarily 
gave up his power. And that has a severe cost (which I’ve come to calling the 
“power premium”) because giving up your power is often the right thing to do. 



In non-profits, for example, your organization is probably made up of a bunch 
of independent- minded young people with a strong belief in democracy. These 
people aren’t too happy being told what to do all the time, especially when 
the instructions are pretty obviously not the best thing for the non-profit’s 
mission. So they rebel against the founder, and the founder tries to hold on 
to power, and things get very messy. (I don’t know how things usually turn 
out in this situation. Maybe you fight until the founder dies?) 

Less well noticed is that the same mistake is made by for-profit corporations 
as well, it’s just less obvious because the founder is the fellow holding all the 
cash, so you fight about it at your peril. But companies regularly do stupid 
things, even when if you asked all the people in the company about it they 
would have told you they were stupid. But in a capitalist economy, the founder 
has to maintain control. 

But the power premium has a even more serious cost. While many people 
seem to be able to make the leap from doing something themselves to building 
an organization to do it, nobody seems to have been very good at taking the 
next step: going from an organization to a meta-organization, an organization 
that hires other organizations to do its work, rather than hiring people directly. 

Why? Partly because few people get to be in charge of something the size of 
Google, where they need to take that next step to grow, and perhaps the trait 
of thinking that big is rare. But I think part of it is simply because the people 
at the top can’t give up their power. Engaging organizations means you’re no 
longer in charge of what people do or how they do it; the organizations have 
to be in charge of that. And that means you’re no longer a delegator, but more 
of a moderator. It’s founder’s syndrome at the largest scale. 

October 27, 2006 





I’m an optimist. I believe that statements like “Bush went AWOL” or “Gore 
claims to have invented the Internet” can be evaluated and decided pretty 
much true or false. (The conclusion can be a little more nuanced, but the 
important thing is that there’s a definitive conclusion.) 

And even crazier, I believe that if there was a fair and accurate system for 
determining which of these things were lies, people would stop repeating 
the lies. I would certainly try to. No matter how much I wanted to believe 
“Dean’s state record sealing was normal” or “global warming does exist”, if a 
fair system had decided against it, I would stop. 

And perhaps most crazy of all, I want to stop repeating falsehoods. I believe 
the truth is more important than particular political goals, so I want to build a 
system I can trust. I want to know that when I make claims, I’m not speaking 
out of political distortion but out of honest truth. And I want to be able to 
evaluate the claims of other too. 

So how would such a system work? First, large claims (“Gore is a serial liar”, 
“Ronald Reagan was a great President”) would be broken down into smaller 
component parts (“Gore claimed to have invented the Internet”, “Ronald 
Reagan’s economic plan created jobs”). On each small claim, we’d run The 
Process. Let’s take “Gore falsely claimed to have invented the Internet”. 

First, some ground rules. Everything is open. Anyone can submit anything, 
and all the records are put on a public website. 

We’d begin with collecting evidence. Anyone could submit helpful factual 
evidence. We’d get video tape from CNN of what exactly Gore said. We’d 
get Congressional records about Gore’s funding of the Arpanet. We’d get 
testimony from people involved. And so on. If someone challenged a piece of 
evidence’s validity (e.g. “that photo is doctored”, “that testimony is forged”), 
a Mini- Process could be started to resolve the issue. 



Then there ’d be the argument phase. A wiki page would be created where 
each side would try to take facts from the evidence and use them to build an 
argument for their case. But then the other side could modify the page to 
provide their own evidence, expand selective quotatins, and otherwise modify 
the page to make it more accurate and less partisan. Each side would continue 
bashing the other side’s work until the page gave the best arguments from 
each side, presented in such a way that nobody could object. (You may think 
that this is impossible, but Wikipedia has ably proven that it can work.) 

Finally, there’d be the adjucation phase. This is the hard part. A group of 
twelve fairminded intelligent people (experts in the field, if necessary) would 
agree to put aside their partisanship and come to a conclusion based on the 
argument. Hopefully, most of the time this conclusion would be (after a little 
wiki-rewriting from both sides) unanimous. For example, “While Gore’s 
phrasing was a little misleading, it is clear Gore was claiming to have led the 
fight for providing funding for research that was later developed into the 
Internet — a claim that is mostly true. Gore was one of the research’s major 
backers, although others were involved.” 

The panel would be assembled by selecting people widely seen as fairminded 
and intelligent, but coming from different sides of the political spectrum. It is 
likely many would accept — all they’d need to do was read a page and spend 
a little time agreeing to summarize it. And in doing so, they’d provide a great 
contribution to political debate (as well as getting their side represented). 

All of these phases would be going on essentially simultaneously — the 
argument could be updated as new evidence came to light, new evidence 
could be added to fill holes in the argument, and the adjudicating jury could 
keep tabs on the page as updated. 

And once a decision on an issue was made, it could be cited as evidence in 
the argument for a related issue (“Gore is a serial liar”). 

Everything would be very fluid and wiki-like. We’d make up the rules as 
we went along, seeing what was necessary. And when we learned from our 
mistakes, we could go back and fix them. 

This seems like an awful lot of effort for just coming to a decision on a 



couple of silly issues, but I think it’s far more than that. The result would be 
a vast collection of trustable arguments for many of the hot-topics of the 
day, a collection that could be relied on through time to give you the fair 
truth — because everybody had essentially signed off on it (it is publicly- 
modifiable, after all) And if you look at the effort expended on these claims 
and political fights, spending a little time getting the facts right seems like 
a small price to pay. 

What do you think? 

February 19, 2004 





Speech to the Bay Area Law School Technology Conference blogs panel, as prepared. 

So I was asked to speak about bloggers and journalists — it seems like 
people are always finding an excuse to talk about this. In fact, the National 
Press Club had a panel on it just yesterday. Most of the discussion focuses 
on what bloggers do — is it trustworthy? is it right? — but I’d like to take a 
different tack. I’d like to discuss what journalists don’t. 

Last summer, during the election campaign, I decided to take on a little 
project. Every day for a month I would read all the political articles in the 
New York Times and take notes on them on a blog. A number of things 
stood out and I thought I would discuss them. Keep in mind that this is the 
New York Times, widely recognized to be the most serious of newspapers. 
So everything that applies to them applies to an even greater extent to all 
the lesser newspapers, the evening news, the talking head shows, and so on. 

The first was the extreme conservative bias. One day, they ran a front page 
story that claimed Kerry was, quote, like a caged hamster. Another, claiming, 
quote, life is like high school, decided to interview various Kerry classmates. So 
they got two quotes. On the right was the guy who thought Kerry “seem [ed] 
ruthless” and on the left was the one who insisted “hatred is too strong a word” 
for what his classmates felt. These are just fun examples — I found hundreds 
of these things in just a month. And many were on more serious issues as well. 

The constant theme was that Times reporters would repeat Republican 
talking points and images and so on. Kerry was elitist, Kerry was a flip-flopper, 
the Kerry campaign was failing. One reporter even had his own cottage 
industry in stories of that last type. Adam Nagourney ran 22 consecutive 
stories claiming Democrats were worried about themselves. 

But we shouldn’t forget the more important things as well. The Times was, 
of course, one of the major outlets for false claims that Iraq had WMDs. My 



understanding is that it’s a sort of cardinal rule in journalism that if you’re 
going to make a claim, especially a big, important front-page claim, you get 
two sources. Well, the Times didn’t do that on WMDs — they just printed 
whatever the administration said. And when the administration used their 
bogus reporting to go to war, the Times did its best to ignore the fact that 
the war was a blatant violation of international law. 

In all these areas, the blogs bested the Times. Some tracked the spreading 
meme that Kerry was elitist, others pointed out that Bush wasn’t much of a 
down-home cowboy himself, still others carefully debunked each new right- 
wing myth. Blogs pointed to people like weapons inspector Scott Ritter, 
who correctly pointed out there were no WMDs, or the Iraqi defector who 
explained they had all been destroyed. Blogs 1, Times 0. 

Tie second thing I noticed during my study was that reporters rarely pointed 
out Bush was lying, corrected his lies, or even conceded that an objective 
reality containing a truth existed. You don’t have to trust me on this one; I 
spoke to Washington Post campaign reporter Jim VandeHei about it when 
he visited Stanford. Some things are undoubtedly true, he said — he got very 
animated — but editors won’t let reporters print the facts. He wanted to do a 
piece where he compared Bush and Kerry’s stump speeches to see how many 
lies they contained, but editors just wouldn’t let him. 

So instead you get the results so perfectly parodied by Paul Krugman, who 
commented that if the administration announced the Earth was flat, the lead 
story in the Times the next day would be “Shape of Earth: Views Differ”. In 
fact, we don’t really need to leave that sort of thing to the imagination anymore. 
The other month ABC ran a show which balanced people who claimed they 
had been abducted by aliens against respected doctors who explained that 
their experiences resulted from a condition called sleep paralysis. Who was 
right? ABC refused to say. 

Even when facts are reported, they don’t seem to stick. Just last month, a 
Harris poll found that 47% of adults think Saddam helped plan 9/11 and 
36% think Iraq had WMDs. But if the media sends the message that it’s 
unnecessary to check your beliefs against the facts, should we really be so 
surprised that so many Americans don’t? 



Blogs suffer from no such compulsions. They’re happy to take tell you the 
facts and show you the evidence. They’re happy to tell you that some things 
are just wrong and often furious against those who dare to lie. The incredible 
blog Media Matters, for example, diligently tracks right-wing lies spread 
through the media, citing all the sources that prove them false. 

But the most important thing, and the thing that nobody really seems to talk 
about, was how completely empty the Times’s coverage was. It was entirely 
focused on who the candidates were giving stump speeches to or what ads 
they were buying this week. 

The only time an actual policy proposal was mentioned was deep inside a 
discussion of how a candidate played with a certain group. You know, ‘Kerry 
has had problems with the Teamsters, even though they support his health 
care plan’ or something. That was basically it. And this is supposed to be the 
high point of journalism! If the Times won’t talk about policy then no one will. 

And if nobody talks about policy then nobody votes on the basis of it. A 
September 2004 Gallup poll found that only 10% of registered voters said 
that they voted based on the candidates, quote, agenda/ideas/platforms/ 
goals — 6% for Bush, 13% for Kerry. 

And it’s at this point that you really have to ask yourself: “is this really a 
democracy?” It’s the most contested election of out time, coverage is lavished 
on the topic, the nation is closely divided, and yet the media completely 
ignores the issues. There’s no policy debate. And if the media doesn’t report 
the policy proposals and the media doesn’t report the facts, then we’re right 
back to my first point: vague emotional claims about Kerry being a rich elitist 
flip-flopper, or, from the other side, Kerry was a brave soldier who blew stuff 
up in the Vietnam war. 

This wasn’t your grand democratic election: The people didn’t get together 
and look at the facts and have a debate about issues. They didn’t look at 
facts and they didn’t discuss issues at all! They sat in their houses, watched a 
bunch of fuzzy TV commercials, and took in news coverage that recited the 
same vague themes. And then they voted based on which fuzzy image they 
liked the best. There’s a word for stuff like that. It’s not pretty, but I think 
it’s appropriate. It’s called propaganda. This was an election on the basis of 



And so I believe blogs are important insofar as they help us move away 
from this sorry spectacle and towards a real democracy. Blogs, of course, can 
help spread propaganda — and no doubt, most do — but they can also help 
stem it. Political blogs can help pull people into politics, tell them things they 
wouldn’t otherwise hear, and lead them to organize their own projects — like 
building support for Howard Dean or trying to save social security. 

One of the most important things I think blogs do, though, is teach people. 
The media, as I’ve noted, is supremely unintelligent. But I don’t think the 
people of this country are. And one of the most striking things about blogs 
to me is how they almost never talk down to their readership. Indeed most 
seem to think higher of their readership than they do themselves. 

Atrios doesn’t hesitate before explaining some piece of economics that the 
Washington Post finds too complex. Tim Lambert will teach you the statistical 
theory you need to understand why some right-wing claim is wrong. And 
Brad DeLong has taught me more about what it’s like to be an economics 
guy in the government than I got from Paul O’Neill’s book. 

The media isn’t going to come save from this nightmare. But maybe blogs 
can. Or at least they can help. The more people learn, the smarter they become. 
The smarter they become, the more they understand the way the world really 
works. The more they understand, the more they can do to fix things. And 
that is the truly important goal. Thank you. 

* ❖ * 

So, what I did was I took the above speech, bolded the key words and 
numbers, and printed it out. Then I gave it mostly from memory, occasionally 
looking down to get the next bolded word or a particularly well-worded 
phrase. It worked really well, I think. 

The speech touched quite a nerve, as I hoped. My two conservative co- 
panelists (Zack Rosen failed to show) immediately demanded a chance to 
respond and then cut off my rebuttals. One of them (Mike) started insisting 
there was no such thing as objective truth at which point I cut in and said 
‘Well, I can see why Republicans would want to deny that truth exists since 



it often cuts against them!’ which was hailed as the best line of the night. 

After the talk I got a lot of compliments and a guest blogger for Daily Kos 
said he’d talk to Markos about getting me an occasional spot on Daily Kos, 
which is something like the liberal blogger equivalent of a regular gig on the 
Tonight Show. So I think it went well. :-) 

April to, 2005 




One night the other weekend I was walking back with my dad to the hotel. 
I think we were talking about college admissions and things when he said 
‘We don’t have class in America.’ ‘What?’ I said, stunned. ‘We don’t have a 
class system here. That’s only in places like Britain.’ 

My dad has always found occasion to repeat the absurd propaganda he picks 
up from his daily doses of NPR and the New York Times — evolution is a 
fraud, global warming is perfectly normal, etc. — but this claim just floored 
me. How could anyone believe we didn’t have social class in America? The 
evidence is all around us, all the time — it must take real training not to see it. 

A large part of it is that the media pretends class doesn’t exist. It never talks 
about it, except to say that we’re all middle class or imply that class is a purely 
cultural construction, not an economic one. (It is this last thing that allows 
multimillionaire George W. Bush to become lower class by speaking in a 
Texas twang and wearing cowboy boots.) And the realities of other classes 
are never portrayed, except in a stereotyped, mocking tone. In the media, 
everyone is middle class. 

The PBS documentary People Like Us: Social Class in America is the rare 
exception. While it too mostly ignores economic issues, through a series of 
local stories highlighting the mixtures and contradictions of class, it at least 
begins to build a portrait of what class cultures really looks like in America. 

April 22, 2005 




The question seems rather less important now, but for a while I was working 
on a book about politics, especially how the Democrats could win elections. 
For those out there interested in the question, Rick Perlstein (author of Before 
the Storm , the highly-praised history of the rise of the Republican right) 
has written what is pretty much the definitive piece on the subject, now in 
paperback as The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo. 

In short: Perlstein recounts the strong evidence that there is very broad 
support for the economic platform of the Democrats. Nonvoters, independents, 
and even Republicans, he notes, support core Democratic principles. They just 
don’t consider themselves Democrats, a party they think of as not standing 
for anything in particular. This is, of course, because Democrats have been 
busy chasing after the mirage of swing voters, running further and further to 
the right, following the ball Republicans are glefully pulling in front of them. 

He argues that instead, the Democrats must build a strong and long-term 
political identity, building a new political landscape instead of trying to win 
on the old one, just as the right-wing Republicans did. Doing so requires a 
openness to the possibility of losing, at least initially, but in the end it is the 
only way to win. 

This artless summary doesn’t convey the depth of Perlstein’s piece, so if 
you’re interested you can: 

A final note: Why is all this uninteresting? Because the Democrats aren’t 
paid to win elections. They’re paid to win policy for their corporate donors. 
Policy that hurts those companies, however popular with the public, simply 
will not be funded. 

July 20, 2005 





“I was doing some research into the idea that Jesus never existed. When I 
first looked into it, I thought it was just a crackpot theory and I was curious 
why anyone would believe this,” explains Brian Flemming. “To my surprise 
I found the evidence kept stacking up. The more I looked into it, the more 
that the facts aligned with those who said Jesus was just a legendary character. 
The shaky evidence and the poor reasoning were actually on the side of those 
who said that Jesus did exist.” 

And so Flemming {Bat Boy: The Musical, Nothing So Strange, Fair & Balanced, 
and all-around digital rights supporter) decided to make a movie. The result, 
which is currently being screened across the country in theaters and at atheist 
organizations and will be released on DVD soon, is a shockingly good film. 

Flemming begins at the beginning: the popular story of Jesus. In a hilarious 
montage of old footage taken from the Prelinger archives underneath deadpan 
narration, he tells the story in six minutes. And then it’s on to debunking 
it. Through interviews with various experts, illustrated with entertaining 
graphics, he tries to reconstruct the historical evidence for the story. ..only 
to find there isn’t much and a lot doesn’t add up. 

Convinced the story is wrong, Flemming takes aim at the right-wing 
Christian fundamentalists who act based on it, the wishy-washy Christian 
moderates who enable them, and the rest of the system. He concludes by 
heading back home to the fundamentalist Christian school he attended as a 
child to confront the principal about what he’s teaching children. 

Flemming’s previous film, Nothing So Strange (which I also reviewed) was 
interesting but, in fairness, rather amateurish. No such criticism can be made 
of this film, which has some of the best graphics I’ve seen in a documentary 
and a brilliant score composed from the Creative Commons-licensed Wired 
CD by the hertofore-unknown DJ Madson (a nom-de-plume of Flemming, 
I’m beginning to suspect) by remixing popular artists. The whole thing, from 
the interviews down to the promotional posters, hangs together so well that 



it’s hard to believe Flemming is doing this all himself, but apparently he is, 
with no liberal atheist conspiracy to back him. 

(Although, in full disclosure, Larry Lessig and former Creative Commons 
executive director Glenn Otis Brown receive special thanks in the credits. And 
in a remote Q&A via iChat after the screening here at Stanford, Flemming 
was wearing a Creative Commons shirt. So if you want to investigate a 
conspiracy, that’s where I’d look.) 

On the other hand, Flemming has always had what Bill O’Reilly might call 
a “parasitic” sense of self-promotion. His film Nothing So Strange received 
press largely because it included scenes of Bill Gates being assassinated. And 
during the California Recall, Flemming jumped into the fray on the platform 
“If elected, I will resign.” (Thus making Lt. Governor Bustamante governor, 
since at the time he was refusing to run, thinking he’d draw support away 
from the actual governor.) When FOX sued A1 Franken for using the phrase 
“Fair and Balanced”, Flemming wrote a play with the name. When Arnold 
Schwarzenegger sued the makers of a bobblehead version of him, Flemming 
posted a photo of Arnold’s penis. 

Both times, he insisted the works were a form of political protest, but he still 
charged money for the products. He did the same when he released portions 
of Nothing So Strange under a Creative Commons license. It’s one thing to 
support free speech; it’s another to try to make money off of other people’s 
support for it. What’s unsettling about this film is not how Flemming is using 
various atheist groups to screen and promote it — that’s perfectly reasonable, 
especially since he’s giving the DVDs to the groups at outrageously low prices. 

No, what’s unsettling is a hidden feature on Flemming’s site called the 
Grassroots Promotion Team or GPT. In general these things are nothing 
new — just personally, I remember volunteering for Apple when the iMac 
came out and joining a “Street Team” website to promote a Buffy DVD. The 
idea behind such sites is that your particular group of obsessive lonely fans 
will spend their free time promoting your products on various forums and 
websites in exchange for a chance to win some lame prizes. 

It’s sad when big corporations do this, but when independent political folks 
like Flemming do it, it becomes a little creepy. It’s also problematic. Take 
the movie’s soundtrack, which is sold on Amazon. Normally such obscure 



CDs have hardly any reviews. But this one not only had 11, but they were 
all amazingly glowing. “Wow, this CD must be really good,” I thought. But 
when I saw Flemming was awarding 100 “points” for each Amazon review, it 
suddenly made sense. If everyone plays this game, Amazon reviews will quickly 
become meaningless, which is why I don’t think it’s a very good idea to start. 

The film is valuable and grassroots promotion of it is certainly a good thing. 
I just wish it felt a little less like using well-meaning people to make money 
for Flemming and a little more like a cooperative community with the aim 
of spreading the Real News. 

Brian Flemming responds: 

Thanks for the kind words about the movie. I agree with some of your 
criticism of the street team, but I think your aim is off the mark with much 
of it. 

1. AMAZON REVIEWS. There’s an old phrase in publicity, “I don’t 
care if the review is positive or negative, just put the title in the 
headline.” As an indie filmmaker always struggling to get the word 
out against competing messages backed by tens of millions of dollars, 
I definitely subscribe to this philosophy. It was never the design 
of the movie’s street team to load up Amazon with praise (frankly, 
a mix of angry one-star reviews and passionate five-star reviews 
would be better). It’s no secret that authors and their publishers and 
friends stack the Amazon book reviews (as has been documented), 
but I don’t wish to add to that clutter. I’ve never asked anyone to 
post nice things on Amazon about the soundtrack CD for The God 
Who Wasn’t There, or to withhold negative statements (and I have 
not posted a review myself). Street team members are given a free 
(digital) copy of the soundtrack and encouraged to go to Amazon 
and post a review of the music — that’s it. About 5% of them 
do. There’s no incentive to make the review positive or negative. 
However, while I think the street team members’ reviews of the 
soundtrack CD on Amazon are sincere, and no harm has been done, 
this particular sample does naturally skew positive — if you’re on the 
street team, you probably like the film/soundtrack you’ve decided 
to back with your time. But then again, reviews are inherently 



biased — and fans tend to be more motivated than others in posting. 
Most reviews on Amazon for most media products are positive for 
that reason. I’ll freely admit to sending people to Amazon — but 
my goal is battling obscurity, not battling negative opinion. And I 
certainly can’t stop anyone from posting a negative review. 

2. THE STREET TEAM ITSELF. A “street team” is a group of 
volunteer supporters who distribute flyers and stickers and otherwise 
spread the word about a band or film online and offline. You say, “It’s 
sad when big corporations do this, but when independent political 
folks like Flemming do it, it becomes a little creepy.” Here’s where 

I think your aim is considerably off the mark. To be opposed to a 
street team is nearly tantamount to being opposed to the very idea 
of promoting indie artists. I believe promotion should be honest 
and ethical, but promotion itself is not an evil. And organizing 
promotion is not an evil. To eliminate street teams would be largely 
to give up and turn over the marketplace to those who have the 
money to promote via advertising and other expensive means. It 
would strengthen messages backed by money and weaken messages 
backed by passion. I think the street team for The God Who Wasn’t 
There is a great example of passion being organized into action, and 
I’m proud of it. I give theatrical rights away for free — and then 
a group like SF Atheists holds a screening and earns upwards of 
$1000 to help their extremely important efforts. Volunteers go to a 
website where grassroots action is made easier — and conversations 
all over the web get started over whether Jesus really did exist, a very 
legitimate question that is nonetheless the third rail of mainstream- 
media conversations about Christianity. Street teams aren’t “creepy,” 
and this one in particular is doing some very real, verifiable good. 

3. MONEY. You write that when I attacked Arnold Schwarzenegger 
and Bill O’Reilly via Fair Use Press, I “insisted the works were 

a form of political protest, but [Flemming] still charged money 
for the products. He did the same when he released portions of 
Nothing So Strange under a Creative Commons license. It’s one 
thing to support free speech; it’s another to try to make money off 
of other people’s support for it.” Really, I’m just shaking my head in 
wonder at this accusation. I have never made any profit whatsoever 



from any of my Fair Use Press e-books. The Schwarzenegger attack 
was given away, with a high- res “premium” edition sold at first for 
$1 (both editions are free now and have been for about a year). I 
added a $1 price to that specifically to demonstrate fair use — that 
I wasn’t taking a “noncommercial” copout, so Schwarzenegger and 
his attorney couldn’t claim that’s why they didn’t sue. That’s what 
my activism through Fair Use Press is about — demonstrating 
the limits of fair use. I want people to look at what I do, see that I 
got away with it, and then do more of the same. The commercial 
marketplace — where messages like Bill O’Reilly’s already live — is 
an important battlefield in this fight. Just because I fight in that 
space doesn’t mean Pm making a profit from Fair Use Press. I don’t, 
and it certainly isn’t part of the plan (I spend far more on promotion 
and advertising than I take in). And my best-case scenario for The 
God Who Wasn’t There is to break even on marketing expenses 
(production costs are already written off, gladly, as a loss). All of 
my indie-film work and free-culture activism operates in the red, 
subsidized by the Hollywood work-for-hire assignments I take that 
also pay my rent. Fm not, as you say, “using well-meaning people to 
make money.” Fm putting in my own money and time to the same 
purpose as the people Fm working side-by-side with. The fact that 
we earn revenue to try to keep the project somewhat self-sustaining 
cannot reasonably be termed exploitation. 

Criticism is a good thing, Aaron, and we free-culture activists of course do 
need to criticize each otherwhere criticism is justified. And I certainly should 
be held publicly accountable for anything I publicly do. But in this case I 
really think you’ve gone overboard and made accusations that have little merit. 

Aaron replies: 

Thanks for responding. I can’t say Fm glad to hear you don’t expect to 
turn a profit on any of this, but it certainly allays any fears of exploitation. 

But I feel like you missed my main point about the street team — the 
one I ended the article with: “I just wish it felt ... a little more like a 
cooperative community with the aim of spreading the Real News. ’’There’s 
nothing wrong with telling people about music or movies you like, or 



even putting up posters to promote them. Where it gets creepy is when 
this natural enthusiasm is co-opted and channeled into a structured, 
top-down sort of system. Now I’m not just expressing my opinions, I’m 
following orders so I can get goodies. That fundamentally changes things. 

Maybe an analogy will help. My mom likes telling people about 
interesting things I’ve done. There’s nothing wrong with this — the 
people she talks to like knowing this stuff. But you have to admit it would 
be creepy if I started providing my mom with a list of my achievements 
and awarding her points every time she found a way to mention them. 
Mom begins to feel used, her friends begin to feel duped, and I look 
like a narcissist. 

There’s no need to get rid of the promotion system, just scale it back a 
little. Provide a list of suggested actions, a forum where people can talk 
about what they’re doing, and then offer to mail a t-shirt or something 
to people who work hard. 

You see, contrary to popular opinion — even in the free culture 
community, oddly enough — rewards are incredibly destructive. Study 
after study shows they actually demotivate people, encourage people to 
cheat and lie, and cause them to make stupid decisions about trade-offs. 
For an excellent book on the subject, s zzAlfie Kohns Punished By Rewards. 

June 1, 2005 




George Lakoff is a prominent cognitive scientist whose central insight 
(which is not to say that the idea originates with him) is that we can learn 
about the structure of our thoughts by looking carefully at the words we 
use to express them. For example, we think of time as a line, as you can see 
through phrases like “time line”, “looking forward”, “further in the past”, etc. 
Similarly, we thinking is thought of as a kind of seeing: “do you see what I 
mean?”, “pulled the wool over your eyes”, “as you can see from the book”, “his 
talk was unclear”, “that sentence is opaque”, etc. 

Lakoff used these techniques to write a series of books describing the 
structures of various ideas [Metaphors We Live By, Philosophy in the Flesh, 
Where Mathematics Comes From, etc.) but after the Republican Revolution 
of 1994, he turned the technique on politics, resulting in his 1996 classic 
Moral Politics, which tries to explicate the cognitive models of Democrats 
and Republicans. 

After the election of Bush, Lakoff began talking about how Republicans 
were better at “framing”, or using language to get people to agree with them, 
than Democrats. Lakoff that the process goes both ways: language causes 
your mind to think of certain concepts which create certain pathways in your 
brain. Thus Republicans, he said, through massive repetition of certain phrases, 
were literally changing the brains of the electorate to be more favorable to 
them. (“If this sounds a bit scary,” he writes, “it should. This is a scary time.”) 

Around the 2004 election, Lakoff skyrocketed to fame among Democrats, 
who were convinced by his argument that fighting Republicans required not 
just giving into Republican frames, but reframing the debate themselves. He 
rushed out the slender book Don’t Think of an Elephant, a cobbled-together 
guide on his basic ideas and how progressives could use them. The book stayed 
on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. 

Now Lakoff is back with a more studied work, Whose Freedom ?, which tries to 
focus in more detail on the differing views of one particular concept: freedom. 



Lakoff starts the book by noting that in his 2004 speech at the Republican 
convention, Bush used “freedom”, “free”, or “liberty” once every forty-three 
words. Most progressives think of this simply as a stunt — using feel-good 
symbols like flag and words like freedom to distract from the real issues. But 
Lakoff argues something much deeper is going on: Bush is trying to change 
the meaning of freedom itself. 

So what is he trying to change it to? Right away, the book begins to fall 
apart. Lakoff ’s definition of freedom is so broad (it encompasses democracy, 
opportunity, equality, fairness, education, health, the press, the market, religion, 
the military, academia, and privacy) as to be fundamentally meaningless: 
“Every progressive issue is ultimately about freedom,” he concludes. And yet 
freedom is kept on as the book’s organizing principle: instead of chapters 
about economics, religion, and foreign policy, we have the chapters “Economic 
Freedom”, “Religion and Freedom”, and “Foreign Policy and Freedom”. 

This would be harmless if it was simply a rhetorical affectation, but Lakoff 
still seems to think is fundamentally about freedom. As a result, the chapters 
are not only weighed down with meaningless and silly attempts to connect 
the topic to freedom (“Life is a progressive issue, since progressive Christians 
are committed to promoting freedom, freedom from oppression and pain and 
freedom to realize one’s dreams.” — actual quote) but their actual substance 
is stripped bare, because it’s not discussed in its own right, but merely as an 
aid to the book’s discussion of freedom. 

Thus instead of deriving his key theory of how family metaphors create 
political views, by showing how he discovered this and how it explains a 
lot about the world, he quickly asserts it and then tries to apply the idea 
to the empty void of “freedom”. The result is a book that is fundamentally 
vacuous — its main idea has no substance and its supporting ideas have no 

And for a linguist, Lakoff has a surprisingly tin ear for language. His 
suggestions (like using the term “freedom judges” to respond to “activist 
judges”) are so bad that I assume they must not be meant to be taken literally 
(“judges that will fight for freedom” is more akin to what Lakoff means). 

It’s unclear how the book got into this sorry state, but the good news is 



there’s hope. Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute has been putting out thoughtful 
and valuable guides on how to think and talk about various issues and they 
plan to publish their major work, the Progressive Manual, this summer. Let 
us hope that book does what this could not. 

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Lakoff’s book fedexed to me 
before the July 4 publication date. 

June 23, 2006 




I happen to be taking a class on sociological methods. The other day we 
had a section where the TA showed us how to use SPSS, a GUI statistical 
analysis program. Usually such computer demos are pretty boring — pull 
down this menu here, click this button here, and so on — but this demo was 
magical: it used real data. 

The TA downloaded a listing of venture capitalists from the State of California. 
Then he downloaded the records of political campaign contributions from 
the Federal Election Commission. He merged the two files and calculated 
an index of party loyalty — how likely each person was to donate to the 
Democrats or Republicans. Then he graphed it. He found an anomaly in the 
data and went back and investigated it. 

The whole performance was oddly enthralling and I went up to ask him 
questions afterwards. ‘So you’re interested in statistics?’ he asked me and I 
said yes and began to think about why. I’ve decided it’s because I like truth. 
If you like finding out the truth — which is often surprising — the best 
technique to use is science. And if you want to do serious science, sooner or 
later you’ll probably need statistics. 

In the field of surprising statistics, one name comes up frequently: Steven D. 
Levitt. And — surprise, surprise — Levitt has a new book out, Freakonomics. 
(As an aside, Levitt must have a great publicist because the book has been 
receiving tons of hype. It’s a good book, but not as good as the hype would make 
it seem . 1 Nonetheless, I will put this aside in reviewing it.) The book consists 
of a popularization of the papers of Levitt and other interesting economists. 

As a result, the book doesn’t have much of a theme but covers a bunch of 
bizarre topics: how school teachers and sumo wrestlers cheat, how bagel eater 
don’t, how real estate agents and surgeons don’t have your best interests at 
heart, how to defeat the Ku Klux Klan, how The Weakest Link contestants 
demonstrates racism, how online daters lie, how drug dealing works like 
McDonalds, how abortion overthrows governments and fights crime, how 
to be a good parent, and what you can learn from children’s names. 



Despite his unusual interests and open mind, Levitt remains an economist 
and has the economist’s typical right-wing assumptions: most notably, a 
strong commitment to incentives and an unquestioning faith in societal 
order. For the former, it makes fun of criminologists by insisting the evidence 
that punishment deters criminals is “very strong”, but fails to provide a 
single citation (almost everything else in the book, even well-known facts, is 
scrupulously cited). For the latter, they simply assume that IQ_is an accurate 
and inherited measure of intelligence, despite a rather glaring lack of evidence 
for this. 

Furthermore, in a section that uses parental interviews to pick out which 
parenting techniques are most effective, the authors almost entirely ignore the 
possibility that parents are lying — an omission they don’t make elsewhere. 
For example, they find no correlation between saying that you read to your 
children and your children doing well in school. From this they conclude 
that reading doesn’t matter, a far more likely explanation seems to be that 
nearly all parents claim they read to their children. (Thanks to Brad Delong 
for this criticism 2 .) 

But it’s still a fun and interesting book. However, I believe its most important 
point is one that’s not stated explicitly: that through the proper investigation 
of the numbers we can better understand our world. 

Sociologists write many amazingly well-written and fascinating books, 
even without the help of a professional co-author, yet none of them have 
seen anything like the publicity this book has. I don’t think it’s a coincidence 
that it took an economist to write a sociology book before it could be given 
publicity. Sociology raises too many problematic questions about society 
but an economist can do somewhat interesting things while continuing to 
endorse the status quo. (Even Levitt’s most radical finding — that legalizing 
abortion cut crime rates in half — leads him to insist that the finding has no 
direct relevance for public policy.) 

Official website: http : / / f r eakonomic s . com/ 

April 23, 2005 

1 . The stuff that Levitt is interested in - the reason why his book is 



interesting - is society, the field studied by sociology. In this 
sense, Freakonomics is really a sociology book. Yet its attitude 
toward sociologists could be parodied as "And thank goodness a 
sociologist risked his life by spending four years embedded with a 
drug gang because he managed to find a couple notebooks of business 
transactions that he could give to an economist!" One might expect 
that the picture of a drug gang resulting from four years of embedded 
research might be more interesting than a couple of notebooks, but 
apparently no. 

2. http://delong. typepad .com/sdj/2005/03/f reakonomics . html 




As the hype around the book Freakonomics reaches absurd proportions 
(now an “international bestseller”, the authors have been signed for a monthly 
column in the New York Times Magazine), I think it’s time to discuss some of 
the downsides that I mostly left out of my main review. The most important of 
which is that economist Stephen Levitt simply does not appear to care — or 
even notice — if his work involves doing evil things. 

The 1960s, as is well-known, had a major civilizing effect on all areas of 
American life. Less well-known, however, was the immediate pushback from 
the powerful centers of society. The process involved a great number of things, 
notably the network of right-wing think tanks I’ve written about elsewhere, 
but in the field of education it led to a crackdown on “those institutions 
which have played the major role in the indoctrination of the young”, as a 
contemporary report {The Crisis of Democracy) put it. 

The indoctrination centers (notably schools) weren’t doing their job properly 
and so a back-to-basics approach with more rote memorization of meaningless 
facts and less critical thinking and intellectual development was needed. 
This was mainly done under the guise of “accountability”, for both students 
and teachers. Standardized tests, you see, would see how well students had 
memorized certain pointless facts and students would not be allowed to 
deviate from their assigned numbers. Teachers too would have their jobs 
depend on the test scores their students got. Teachers who decided to buck 
the system and actually have their students learn something worthwhile 
would get demoted or even fired. 

Not surprisingly, as always happens when you make people’s lives depend 
on an artificial test, teachers begun cheating. And it is here that Professor 
Levitt enters the story. He excitedly signed up with the Chicago Public School 
system to try to build a system that would catch cheating teachers. Levitt 
and his co-author write excitedly about this system and the clever patterns 
it discovers in the data, but mostly ignore the question of whether helping 
to get these teachers fired is a good idea. Apparently even rogue economists 



jump when the government asks them to. 

Levitt has a few arguments — teachers were setting students up to fail 
in the higher grade they would be advanced to — but these are tacked 
on as afterthoughts. Levitt never stops to ask whether contributing to 
the indoctrination of the young or getting teachers fired might not be an 
acceptable area of work, despite being an economist, he never weighs any 
benefits or even considers the costs. 

Levitt, by all appearances, was not, like some of his colleagues, a self- 
conscious participant in this regressive game. He was just a rube who got 
taken in. But surely preventing others from the same fate would be a more 
valuable contribution. 

June 17, 2005 




For years, progressives have watched as both Democratic and Republican 
administrations have taken away what little remained of economic liberalism 
in this country. Bill Clinton, for example, took away what meager assistance 
the government paid to poor single mothers, signed NAFTA, and begun 
attempting to chip away at Social Security 1 . 

But even worse than these policy defeats are the conceptual defeats that 
underly them. As cognitive scientist George Lakoff has argued 2 people think 
about politics through conceptual moral frames, and the conservatives have 
been masterful at creating frames for their policies. If the left wants to fight 
back, they’re going to have to create frames of their own. 

Enter Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy 
Research and one of the people instrumental in fighting back against the 
most recent attempt to privatize social security (as author Social Security: 
The Phony Crisis he had plenty of facts to demonstrate that the crisis was, in 
fact, phony). He has a new book out, The Conservative Nanny State: How the 
Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, which takes decades 
of conservative frames and stands them on their head. (Disclosure: I liked 
the book so much I converted it to HTML for them and was sent a free 
paperback copy in return.) 

His most fundamental point is that conservatives are not generally in favor 
of market outcomes. For far too long, he argues, the left has been content with 
the notion that conservatives want the market to do what it pleases while 
liberals want some government intervention to protect people from its excesses. 

No way!, says Baker. Conservatives love big government — only they use it 
to give money to the rich instead of the poor. Thus the conservative nanny 
state of the title, always looking out for crybaby moneybags to help. 

Take, for example, trade policy. The conservative nanny state is more than 
happy to sign free trade agreements that let manufacturing jobs in the United 
States flee offshore. And they’re happy to let immigrant workers come into 



the country to replace dishwashers and day laborers. But when it comes 
to the professional class, like doctors, lawyers, economists, journalists, and 
other professionals, oh no!, the conservative nanny state does everything it 
can (through licensing and immigration policy) to keep foreign workers out. 

This doesn’t just help the doctors, it hurts all of us because it means we 
have to pay more for health care. NAFTA boosters estimate that the entire 
agreement saved us $8 billion dollars a year. Using competition to bring only 
doctor’s salaries down the levels seen in Europe would save us eighty billion 
dollars — nearly $700 per family per year, just from improved prices for 
doctor’s. You’d see similar amounts from other major professions. 

Baker’s book is also one of the few to reveal the shocking secret behind the 
Federal Reserve Board you always hear messing with interest rates on the news. 
This unaccountable technocracy, most of whose members are appointed by 
banks, uses its power over interest rates to drive the economy into a recession 
so that wages won’t get too high. That’s right, the government tries to slow 
down the economy so that you get paid less. (Full details are in the book.) 

Baker’s book is also chock-full of fascinating new policy ideas. He points 
out, for example, that corporations aren’t part of the free market, but instead 
a gift offered by the government. (A very popular one too, since companies 
voluntarily pay S278B each year for it.) And because of this, there’s absolutely 
no reason the government can’t tweak its terms to make us all better off. For 
example, Baker points out that currently, corporate rules count shareholders 
who don’t vote at all as voting in favor of whatever the director’s of the 
corporation prefer. Baker suggests requiring that all CEO pay packages get 
approved by a majority of those actually voting, instead of letting major CEOs 
pick how much to pay themselves as they do now. 

Or what about copyright and patents? Again, this isn’t a law of nature, but 
a big government gift. People who really care about shrinking government 
would want to try to get rid of or shrink the laws that say the government 
gets to make rules about what songs and movies we can have on our personal 

Americans spend $220 billion on prescription drugs, largely because of 
government-granted patents. Instead of handing that money to big drug 



companies, the government could spend far less (only a couple hundred 
million) funding researchers itself and making the resulting drug discoveries 
free to the public. College students spend $12 billion. Again, the government 
could make free textbooks for one-thousandth that. And we spend $37 
billion on music and movies. Why not create an “artistic freedom voucher” 
(vouchers — a conservative favorite!) that can only be spent on artists who 
place their work in the public domain? 

None of these would require outlawing the existing system — they could 
work side-by-side, simply forcing the existing drug, textbook, and movie 
companies to compete with this alternate idea. If their version works better, 
then fine, they’ll get the money. But if not, there’ll be no conservative nanny 
state to protect them. 

Similarly, the government could expand the social security program, allowing 
every to buy additional personal accounts from a system with amazingly low 
overhead (0.5% versus the 20% of private funds) and a 70-year track record 
of success. Or it could try to improve our pitifully-bad health care system by 
letting people buy into the government’s Medicare program, which again has 
amazingly low administrative costs (did you know that, on a per person basis, 
we spend 80% of what Britain spends on health care altogether simply on 
administration?) and serious bargaining power to push down prices. Again, 
why not let the private companies try their best to compete? 

The book itself also discusses bankruptcy laws, torts and takings, small 
businesses, and taxes. And it goes in to far more detail on each of these 
subjects. And it’s all available for free on the Internet, so there’s no excuse 
for not reading it. It’s an fun read, the kind of book that turns the way you 
think about the economy upside-down. 

May 22, 2006 

1 . http: / /www. 




This week’s Sunday Bonus Post comes from local genius Kragen Sitaker. 

Upon reading an article that claimed: 

[Sjcience is hard. It is therefore inherently “elitist,” merely in this 
obvious sense: as with skateboarding, some will be demonstrably better 
at it than others. 

Kragen saw fit to ponder the meaning of elitism. Kragen thinks of himself 
as an anti-elitist, but he’s also very pro-science. How to reconcile the two? 

Kragen begins by defining “elite”: 

An “elite” is a small group of people who are distinguished from the 
majority in one of two ways: either they are better in some way, or they 
have more power. These are distinct meanings, although apologists for 
established orders like to conflate them, and sometimes one leads to the 
other. Sometimes an elite is distinguished by the mastery of a particular 
skill, such as skateboarding or mathematics, and sometimes by past 
accomplishments; but the much more common sense of the term today 
is to refer to a group of people who have power. 

Elitism, then (according to Kragen) is the ideology that insists that the elite 
and non-elite reached their positions through intrinsic merit. (This belief 
might also be called meritocracy, but that is perhaps a less pejorative term.) 

Ironically, the very article that begun this investigation appears to believe in 
this ideology. The article claims that textbooks, in trying to be “democratic”, 
lower their standards so that even the dullest students can comprehend them. 
Instead, the article insists, textbooks must be more “elitist” and teach real 
science, which is hard. 

Anti-elitists like Kragen and I would agree that textbooks should teach more 



real science, which is hard. But we do not consider this elitist, because we do 
not believe that only a small elite has the capability of comprehending physics. 

To anti- elitists, egalitarianism does not require lowering standards, since 
we believe more people can reach higher standards with more resources. But 
to elitists, this seems an impossibility. The only reason they are in the club is 
because they deserve it; to let others in requires bringing the requirements 

October 29, 2006 





The United State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is a federal-looking 
building nestled in among the offices and shops and business parks of San 
Francisco’s downtown. Large marble walls and staircases try desperately to 
send the message that what goes on here is of paramount importance, that 
the decisions made in these halls will reverberate throughout a large part of 
the country: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, 
Oregon, and Washington — the largest of any appeals court. 

But, this morning, the courtroom tells a different story. With people 
packed like Sardines into a room not much bigger than a bedroom in a San 
Francisco apartment, with one of the judges missing and replaced — without 
explanation — with a large television, and with hesitant, stammering public 
defenders arguing their cases against only slightly-less-hesitant civil servants, 
I briefly wondered if I was in the wrong room. 

The first case I saw appeared to be a man requesting asylum in the US from 
his home country. I missed large portions of the case, but as I paid attention, 
the facts started coming out. He wanted asylum from persecution because 
he was gay. But the country he was hiding from didn’t exactly have a record 
of persecution of gays. And the only evidence of persecution he could point 
to was that a couple people on the street once called him gay. 

The next case seemed a little better for the non-government guy. It was about 
a man who accused of defrauding Medicare by double-billing. He noted that 
the Court had changed the law during the case; instead of just requiring the 
jury to find whether double-billing had occurred, it now required the jury to 
find how much. But they’d made that change after the trial, so he’d never had 
a chance to present any evidence on how much double-billing had occurred. 
His lawyer asked for a chance to hold a hearing to present the evidence. 

“Do you have the evidence?” a judge asked. The lawyer responded that he 
didn’t, because he was a public defender and needed to hire a professional 



accountant to look through the math, but couldn’t afford to without a judge’s 
permission, and the judge denied his request at the same time he denied the 
hearing on the subject. But, he explained, the government’s accountant had 
admitted on the stand that there were mistakes in the math he presented, 
although he didn’t know what impact they had. Couldn’t he just get a trial 
to assess the math? The judges didn’t seem to think so. 

If the judges weren’t going to give a victory on that case, they really weren’t 
on the next one. A man who lived with his mom in Massachusetts was 
challenging the government’s search of his storage locker in Arizona. His 
lawyer sparred with the judges for some time about the details of Fourth 
Amendment law. Then the government’s lawyer took the stage. “Let me tell 
you about this man,” he said. “As a condition of his parole, he wasn’t permitted 
to have any guns. But he kept one gun, the machine gun he’d had since he 
was a kid — he called it his baby. The government got a tip and showed up 
on his doorstep and he practically handed them the gun and then told them 
to go away. It was raining outside and he wouldn’t let them into his house. 
They searched the house and found another machine gun kit.” 

“In Court, he was asked if he had any more guns. His lawyer, acting on his 
client’s behalf, insisted that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction because all the 
other guns were in a storage locker in Arizona. After the lawyer said that, we 
had to search the locker in Arizona. There we found a huge shipping crate. 
To take the crate into evidence, the government had to inventory it. There we 
found 44 flamethrowers, 22 submachine guns, 5 hand grenades, and a handful 
of pistols. We had to call in the bomb squad and check over everything. And 
he’s arguing that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t permit us to open that crate.” 

Later, I heard some of the lawyers on a different case joking. “Once opposing 
counsel says flamethrowers, you’ve lost. Doesn’t matter how good your case 
is. You’re never going to recover from that.” 

It was into this environment that Larry Lessig stepped. Lessig has been 
thinking about the implications of copyright law for most of his career. He 
has spent months practicing to argue before the Supreme Court and other 
lesser courts. He spent the weekend practicing this case with other faculty 
members at the Stanford Law School. He spent the morning pacing the halls, 
going over his notes one last time. And as he strode into the Courtroom that 



morning and begun his argument before the Court, unlike every other lawyer 
who had presented, he didn’t stumble over a single word. 

In some ways, this should have been home territory for Lessig. It was his own 
Court, right in his own town of San Francisco. And as he paced the halls, he 
was continually interrupted by former students of his at Stanford Law, who 
had gone on to careers as lawyers in the area, which had brought them here, 
to argue before the Court just like him. And, perhaps he figured, the judges 
would welcome a break from the endless parade of petty complaints to his 
arguments about the big issues — the First Amendment, the Progress clause, 
copyright. Weren’t things like that why they became judges in the first place? 

Perhaps not. 

November 27, 2006 





“For a hundred and eighty-six years America had an opt-in system of 
copyright,” Lessig began. “Copyright was not granted automatically but was 
limited to works that were published. And then only to those with notice. And 
then only to those published with notice that were deposited and registered 
promptly. And to those [published,] marked, deposited, and registered, the 
copyright still had to be renewed after 28 years. Under this system, nearly 
fifty percent of published work entered the public domain immediately and 
ninety-three percent within twenty-eight years.” 

“Following the 1976 Copyright Act, that all changed and copyright was 
granted automatically, for a full term, as soon as a work was fixed in a tangible 
form. No longer was it necessary to published, deposit, mark, or renew. 
Copyright moved from an opt-in system to an opt-out. And under this 
system, zero percent of published work will enter the public domain for at 
least a hundred years.” 

“This is a radical change — perhaps the most radical change — to copyright 
law, going from ninety-three percent of works going in the public domain to 
zero. And the result is a huge increase in ‘orphaned works’ — works whose 
copyright holder cannot even be located to ask permission.” 

“In Eldred v. Ashcroft, the Supreme Court ruled that copyright only needed 
judicial review when the ‘traditional contours’ of copyright law were changed. 
This is clearly a change to copyright’s traditional contours and thus deserves 
a chance for judicial review.” 

The government’s lawyer — slick, but not as slick as Lessig — argued 
that the Court was referring to only two traditional contours: the right to 
fair use (which allows things like the use of small snippets of copyrighted 
material and limited copies for educational use) and the “idea/ expression 
dichotomy” (which says that you can’t copyright ideas but only a particular 
way of expressing them). 



Lessig responded that this was absurd. If the government ruled that cartoons 
featuring the prophet Mohammed could not receive copyrights, the law 
would clearly be subject to First Amendment review, even though neither 
fair use nor idea/expression were touched. Similarly, the change from opt- 
out to opt-in deserves review. 

There were three judges, as required by law to hear all federal appeals. The 
one on the right, who was live via satellite, didn’t say a word the entire time. 
The one on the left didn’t ask more than a question or two. The judge in the 
middle was responsible for most of the questions. And she did not appear 
to get it. 

“How is this different from Eldred?” she asked. 

A quarter of the way in to the argument, she handed a slip of paper to her 
aide. Her aide scurried away and came back with a thick document. She 
looked down at it and then looked up. 

“You were the lawyer in Eldred as well,” she asked Lessig. 

“Yes, your honor.” 

“How is this different from Eldred?” 

“In Eldred,” Lessig explained, trying again, “the issue was whether Congress 
could continue expanding the length of copyright in order to keep Mickey 
Mouse from going into the public domain. The Court — Justice Ginsburg 
channelling Justice Scalia — said that since Congress had been doing this 
forever they could keep doing it. But in this case, we’re talking about a new 
change, one that effects orphaned works — works for who the copyright 
holder cannot be located.” 

“Which wouldn’t include Mickey Mouse, because every can find Disney?” 
the judge asked. 

“Precisely,” Lessig replied. 

During the government’s rebuttal, the judge asked who was lobbying against 



this change in copyright law. “Well,” the government’s lawyer replied, “um, 
I suspect it was people very much like the ones you see here today.” (“Yeah,” 
Lessig scoffed later, “I was testifying in Congress against the bill back when 
I was fifteen!”) 

By the same token, the judge asked Lessig about what solutions to the 
problem he would expect were the law ruled unconstitutional. “There are many 
possible solutions,” Lessig replied, drawing a picture of a network of people 
fighting this issue in all branches of government. There was this lawsuit, of 
course, but there was also a bill introduced by local Congresswoman Zoe 
Lofgren to require a one-dollar renewal fee (based, Lessig did not say, on a 
New York Times op-ed he had written), there was a series of hearings by the 
U.S. Copyright Office on the orphaned works problem, which concluded 
“The orphan works problem is real. . . . Legislation is necessary to provide a 
meaningful solution to the orphan works problem as we know it today.” and 
provided several proposals. 

“Your time is up,” the judge said, before the red light saying his time was 
up had gone on, and Lessig quietly packed up his papers and filed out, half 
the courtroom following behind him. 

“Congratulations,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle (the man who 
Lessig is filing this lawsuit on behalf of) said to Lessig, shaking his hand and 
smiling broadly. Lessig smiled back, then posed politely for photos with Kahle 
and his associate Rick Prelinger. The well-wishers soon streamed out until 
it was just Lessig and his fellow law school lawyers. The smile disappeared 
from Lessig ’s face. “They didn’t get it,” Lessig said downcast. 

“Oh, I think they were getting it towards the end there,” one of the lawyers 
said, trying to cheer Lessig up. “No,” he replied, “they weren’t. ’’“Well,” another 
lawyer chimed in, “to write an opinion they’ll have to read the briefs and 
then they’ll see your argument.” “No,” he explained, “they can just tell a clerk 
which way to write the opinion and have them do it.” 

“Actually, our best hope now is that they won’t write an opinion at all and 
then Golan [a related case in a different Circuit] will go the other way and 
then we’ll have a circuit split.” (A circuit split is when two different circuit 
courts rule different ways on the same issue. Usually the Supreme Court then 



has to step in to resolve the disagreement.) 

“Well, at least your case didn’t have any flamethrowers,” someone said, trying 
to lighten the mood. But Lessig just wasn’t in the mood. 

November 28, 2006 





In the field of Constitutional Law, there are many pages spent trying to 
come up with a reason for free speech. It’s about the “marketplace of ideas” 
some say: by putting all claims and points of view out in the open, the public 
can sort through and figure out the truth, leaving the untruths to fall by the 
wayside. Others argue that free speech is necessary for democracy, since voters 
must hear different opinions to decide how to use their votes, and that since 
even non-political speech can change people’s views, all speech must then 
be protected. 

There are many more justifications like this — a limit on government 
abuse, a policy to promote a more tolerant citizenship, etc. — but, like most 
justifications, they all say we should permit free speech because it allows us 
to do something else. And the frustrating thing about that is that it suggests 
that free speech should not be permitted when it doesn’t achieve those goals. 

Theorists of free speech are, in general, fans of the idea (or at least their 
market consists of fans) so they try to dance around this. “Oh no,” the 
marketplace-of-ideas partisans say, “we weren’t suggesting that obviously 
false statements could be prohibited because, after all, you really never know 
when false statements could turn out to be true!” 

But, as something of a free speech absolutist, it troubles me that such a thing 
is even theoretically possible. And I worry that if others adopt this theory, they 
may not be so stringent about the practical requirements. The temptation to 
clamp down on free speech is always strong; it’s probably not a sound idea 
to build the principle on such a shaky foundation. 

So I have my own justification for freedom of speech: because we can. Human 
freedom is important, so we should try to protect it from encroachment 
wherever possible. With most freedoms — freedom of motion, freedom of 
exchange, freedom of action — permitting them in full would cause some 
problems. People shouldn’t be free to walk into other people’s bedrooms, 
take all their stuff, and then punch the poor victims in the face. But hurling 



a bunch of epithets at the guy really isn’t so bad. 

Freedom of speech is one place where we can draw the line and say: all of 
this is acceptable. There’s no further logic to it than that; freedom of speech 
is not an instrumental value. Like all freedom, it’s fundamental, and the only 
reason we happen to single it out is because it’s more reasonable than all of 
the others. 

Close readers will note that this theory doesn’t quite live up to my own 
goals. By laying freedom of speech’s provision on top of our reasonable ability 
to do so, I suggest that freedom of speech could be taken away if providing 
it became unreasonable. But I think this is the right choice: if people really, 
seriously started getting hurt because of freedom of speech, it seems right 
for people to take the privilege away. But, to be honest, I can’t even imagine 
how that might be possible. Words just don’t genuinely wound, they’re always 
mediated by our listening. 

I do worry that people might try to stretch this justification — say that 
continued free speech might destroy the war effort, or the government, or civil 
society. But I have no problem destroying all of those. It’s only the destruction 
of actual people that I worry about. 

So here’s to free speech: because we can. 

November 23, 2006 




Marx wrote incisively about commodity fetishism — the tendency of people 
to see only the results of production (commodities), ignoring the hours of 
human labor that actually created them. The humanities seems to suffer from 
something of the reverse problem: a tendency to be absorbed by the names 
of big people and not seeing beyond to the ideas they espouse. 

The most extreme example is Leo Strauss, who encouraged his students 
to put aside their prejudices and fully imerse themselves in the worlds and 
minds of the greats. The greats were so great, Strauss suggested, that if you 
disagree with them, you probably just don’t understand them well enough. 

But even other teachers of philosophy have the same problem, presenting the 
views of X and Y even when X is pretty clearly wrong. Despite its absurdities, 
students must learn to understand X’s view. This seems fairly universal; even 
books like What is the Meaning of it All?, which explains philosophy without 
the names or complex terminology, still presents clearly bogus ideas on the 
same footing as more reasonable ones. 

In other fields, this pattern is less frequent, but still there for whole courses 
of research. In sociology, papers must cite long-dead patron theorists to lend 
their empirical research an air of legitimacy by presenting it as a member of 
a recognized family. Even more recent works, like Annette Lareau’s brilliant 
Unequal Childhoods, are at pains to show how they adhere to a theoretical 
model (the recently-alive Bourdieu in that case). In most other fields, the 
theorists take pains to make sure their work is consistent with the evidence, 
not the other way around. 

Even in most humanities classes, the course content consists of a series of 
papers making arguments. The goal of the class is to understand the view of the 
authors and determine (in the best ones) to what extent you agree or disagree. 

This isn’t particularly unreasonable, but is a far cry from life in the hard 
sciences, where usually there is an actual consensus on some subject and 



otherwise there are a couple of named theories, each being developed by a 
group of people. 

Why the diference? First, is it perhaps hard science that’s in the wrong? I 
don’t think so. The goal of science is to discover the truth about the world. 
Truths remain true no matter who says them and it’s unlikely that one person 
will discover the whole truth. Thus the pattern of letting multiple people 
develop a theory and try to find evidence for it to convince the others. 

So why don’t the softer sciences follow the same model? The problem gets 
worse the softer you get, which suggests the problem lies in the softness itself. 
The problem is that without identities, one has to judge the ideas themselves 
which, in a soft science is somewhat difficult to do. 

It’s easy in science to run an experiment and see if it proves a theory true or 
false, it’s much harder to get consensus about a reasonable theory of morality 
in philosophy. But it is easy to pick out the famous in academy culture and 
assign their stuff. 

Identity fetishism thrives in a world afraid to make its own judgments. It 
exalts the thinkers of the past and, in doing so, diminishes its own capacities. 
But science must march forward instead of backward and that requires the 
daring to distinguish true from false. 

November 21, 2006 




In movies, it’s clear when the camera is drunk: blurred vision, shaky motions, 
everything becoming slightly less clear. It’s similarly obvious when the camera 
is on acid: rainbow colors, things melting into each other, and a sort of dazed 
gaze. Yet, despite the prevalence of pot, I’ve never seen a film or TV show 
where the camera is high on marijuana. 

Perhaps that’s because there’s nothing to show. Some deep breaths, a slight 
tingling sensation, and then an odd feeling as if something is pressing on part 
of your brain, lifting your head up, making you happy. An odd happiness, to be 
sure, but a happiness nonetheless. Friends are unable to distinguish between 
when I’ve just gone skinnydipping and when I’m simply high. It’s hard to 
show a camera being happy. 

Contrast this with Omega-3 fatty acids, the fish oil acids that various new 
studies are supposed to show have all sorts of positive effects for your brain. 
When I swallowed a stack of Omega-3 pills, I felt as if I was crawling up 
into my head, living in there instead of plotting the next moves for my body. 
It made it pretty hard to get anything done. 

In San Francisco, medical marijuana is perfectly legal and health-food 
culture makes Omega-3 practically mandatory, but possessing a gun is actually 
outlawed within city limits (even for off-duty cops). To actually discharge one 
you have to drive south of the border, where shooting ranges allow deprived 
northerners to partake of this recreational craze. 

Unlike the flowing, hippie vibe of drug culture, gun culture is strictly 
utilitarian: concrete walls, florescent lights, drab carpeting. Tough-looking 
guys take your license and hand you a gun. First-timers go into the training 
room for a quick primer on how to use it, then you take your weapon, ammo, 
and target into the shooting range. 

Most of the targets are pretty bland — vague silhouettes or bullseyes — but 
there was one frightening option that featured a blatantly stereotypical 



illustration of a hooded bad guy character holding a gun to a cute young 
girl’s head. Normally descriptions of such pictures are more evocative than 
the pictures themselves, but this drawing was just about perfect. 

Naturally, this was the target our neighbors on the shooting range had chosen 
and were now shooting at with enormous shotguns whose blasts shook the 
entire room. Meanwhile, I had a small handgun with a little bit of a kick and 
a simple silhouette. 

My gun jammed the first couple of times I tried to shoot; I had to go through 
the process of unloading and reloading it several times before I even shot a 
single bullet. It’s amazing how comically fake the actual gun feels when you 
do this — it makes all the noises and motions you’d expect from a gun, but 
it seems to lack any internal mechanisms for doing the actual shooting, like 
a prop for a movie. 

When I finally did manage to get the gun working, I relaxed, aimed my 
weapon, and took ten shots at where I thought the bullseye was. (My long- 
distance eyesight is really terrible and I hadn’t thought to bring my glasses until 
now, so I gave it my best shot.) I shot again and again, the pattern of kicking 
and aiming becoming almost rhythmic. When the gun was finally empty, I 
pushed the little button to whirr my target back to me. To my amazement, 
nearly all ten bullets had gone in right by the bullseye. My partner looked 

What’s odd about shooting is how, well, relaxing it is. Something about the 
furious action of the gun seems to drain you of all your nervous energy. And 
while, if you think about it, the item you’re holding is a weapon of terrible 
destruction, there’s very little visual evidence of that fact. Just as the gun feels 
like a prop, the whole thing feels like a game: aim, press the trigger, and some 
dots appear in a piece of paper. But when you’re done you don’t feel hyped- 
up like after a video game. Instead you feel as if what you actually discharged 
was your nervous energy. 

We rolled up the bullet-ridden silhouette to take home as a souvenir. “Maybe 
I’ll mail this to my mom,” I said. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” came 
the reply. 

December 19, 2006 




In July 1, 2004, Paul Krugman gave a talk about the state of the American 
economy. After the significant 2001 recession, the economy had begun 
growing again, with increasing growth in America’s economic output, or 
GDP. But, unlike the growth in the Clinton years, the extra money being 
made in America wasn’t going to the average person. Instead, as the economy 
grew, the wages for the average person stagnated or even declined. All the 
extra money was going to the people at the very top. 

In the press, President Bush’s supporters complained that the public wasn’t 
more happy about the growing economy Bush had given them. After all, 
he’d pulled the country out of a recession; normally that’s good for a boost in 
the polls. Sadly, Americans were just too dumb to notice, Bush’s supporters 
concluded. If only they paid more attention to the news. But what these 
people “are really urging,” Krugman explained in his talk, “is not that the 
public should be smart, but that the public should be medium stupid.” 1 

If the public was really “stupid” (i.e. uneducated), it wouldn’t watch the news 
at all. Instead, it would notice it was out of work, poorly-paid, or otherwise 
having trouble making ends meet, and conclude that the economy wasn’t 
doing very well. On the other hand, if the public was really smart, it’d dig deep 
into the numbers to find that — surprise, surprise! — for most people, the 
economy wasn’t doing as well as the headline numbers about GDP growth 
would suggest. The only way for the public to buy the Bush administration 
spin is to be medium stupid. 

The medium stupid idea has much wider applicability. Most specifically, 
it explains the general state that the mainstream media tries to inculcate 
in the public. The uneducated American has a general idea that invading 
other countries is probably a bad idea. The overeducated American can 
point to dozens of examples of why this is going to be a bad idea. But the 
“medium stupid” American, the kind that gullibly reads the New York Times 
and watches the CBS Evening News, is convinced that Iraq is full of weapons 
of mass destruction that could blow our country to bits at any minute. A little 



education can be a dangerous thing. 

(Along these lines, at one point I was working on a documentary film about 
the evening news that would demonstrate this point. The title, Medium Stupid, 
would also be a convenient homage to Medium, Cool.) 

The same is true in school. As Christopher Hayes points out in his genius 
article, Is A Little Economics A Dangerous Thing? 2 , the uneducated American 
thinks raising the minimum wage is a pretty good idea — after all, people 
deserve to be paid more than $5 an hour. And the overeducated American 
feels the same way; like the dozens of Economics Prize winners who signed 
a petition to raise the minimum wage, they’ve seen the studies showing that 
raising the minimum wage has only a negligible effect on employment. But 
those who have only had Economics 101 buy the propaganda that government 
interference in the market will only make things worse. And, as Hayes shows 3 , 
this leads to bad decisions in many areas — the minimum wage being only 
one prominent example. 

The medium stupid idea has applicability in other areas of life. The uncultured 
person who knows nothing about fashion doesn’t mind wandering around 
in jeans and a t-shirt. And the overcultured person knows exactly what to 
wear to be hip. But medium stupid ol’ me looks bad and feels bad about it. 

To work, propaganda, be it from the Bush administration or the fashion 
industry, requires you to be medium stupid. Know too little and you never 
hear the falsehoods. Know too much and you can spot it for a fraud. Which 
side of the line do you want to be on? 

December 19, 2006 

1 . http : / /www . americanprogress . org/kf /krugman-final . pdf 

2 . http : / /www. inthesetimes . com/ site /main/ article/2897/ 

3 . http : / /www . inthesetimes . com/ site /main/ article/2 897/ 





I was talking with a friend the other day about that perennial subject of 
conversation in the Valley, Google. And finally she gave me the clue that made 
the whole place make sense. “It’s about infantilizing people,” she explained. 
“Give them free food, do their laundry, let them sit on bouncy brightly- 
colored balls. Do everything so that they never have to grow up and learn 
how to live life on their own.” 

And when you look at it that way, everything Google does makes a sick 
sort of sense. 

Not a whole lot has changed since the last time I visited Google. The campus 
is bigger — the buildings across the street, instead of being reserved for lawyers 
and other lowlifes, are now being used by the engineering staff as well, to keep 
up with Google’s nonstop growth. And the employees seem a little less excited 
about things than the last time I was there. Nobody says “We’re on a mission 
to change the world!” anymore. Now they say, “Yeah, I’m just going to stick 
around here another six months until my options vest.” and “I kind of want 
to transfer out of my group but I worry that all the other groups are worse.” 

But the two blatant changes to the campus are a large, terribly fake-looking 
replica of SpaceShipOne hanging in the middle of the main building and 
a replica dinosaur skeleton standing outside. “It’s as if this place is being 
decorated by seven-year-olds,” a friend comments. It also reminds me of 
Robert Reich’s comment about Newt Gingrich: “His office is adorned with 
figurines of dinosaurs, as you might find in the bedrooms of little boys who 
dream of one day being huge and powerful.” 

The dinosaurs and spaceships certainly fit in with the infantilizing theme, 
as does the hot tub-sized ball pit that Googlers can jump into and throw ball 
fights. Everyone I know who works there either acts childish (the army of 
programmers), enthusiastically adolescent (their managers and overseers), or 
else is deeply cynical (the hot-shot programmers). But as much as they may 



want to leave Google, the infantilizing tactics have worked: they’re afraid 
they wouldn’t be able to survive anywhere else. 

Google hires programmers straight out of college and tempts them with all 
the benefits of college life. Indeed, as the hiring brochures stress, the place 
was explicitly modeled upon college. At one point, I wondered why Google 
didn’t just go all the way and build their own dormitories. After all, weren’t 
the late-night dorm-room conversations with others who were smart like you 
one of the best parts of college life? But as the gleam wears off the Google, 
I can see why it’s no place anyone would want to hang around for that long. 
Even the suburban desert of Mountain View is better. 

Google’s famed secrecy doesn’t really do a very good job of keeping 
information from competitors. Those who are truly curious can pickup enough 
leaks and read enough articles to figure out how mostly everything works. 
But what it does do is create an aura of impossibility around the place. People 
read the airbrushed versions of Google technologies in talks and academic 
papers and think that Google has some amazingly large computer lab with 
amazingly powerful technology. But hang around a Googler long enough 
and you’ll hear them complain about the unreliability of GFS and how they 
don’t really have enough computers to keep up with the load. 

“It’s always frightening when you see how the sausage actually gets made,” 
explains a product manager. And that’s exactly what the secrecy is supposed 
to prevent. The rest of the world sees Google as this impenetrable edifice 
with all the mysteries of the world inside (“I hear once you’ve worked there 
for 256 days they teach you the secret levitation,” explains xkcd 1 ) while the 
select few inside the walls know the truth — there is no there there — and 
are bound together by this burden. 

Such a strategy may have worked in the early days, when Googlers were 
a select and special few, but as the company grows larger and employee’s 
identification with it grows thinner, Google has to step up their efforts to 
acculturate. And that’s where the life-size dinosaur replicas come in. Enjoy 
being huge and powerful while you can. Because, like the dinosaurs, this too 
will pass. 


December 13, 2006 




It should be clear to anyone who has studied the topic that the way to drive 
innovation forward is to have lots of small groups of people each trying 
different things to succeed. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, we see 
that certain societies succeed because geography breaks them up into chunks 
and prevents any one person with bad ideas from getting control of too 
much, while other societies fail because their whole territory can too easily 
be captured by an idiot. 

It might at first seem more efficient to let the whole territory be captured 
by a genius, but a moment’s reflection will show that there are few geniuses 
whose brainpower can match the combined results of many independent 
experiments. This has fairly obvious applications to business (see article 
“Google and the Gradient”) and other fields, but for a moment let’s just 
think about the concept itself. 

This idea is often presented as a defense of competition and the capitalist 
market system that embraces it. Innovation only happens, such people say, 
when lots of people are competing against each other for the prizes of success. 
In a communist country, where Big State decides what will be worked on and 
how, there is no incentive to innovate. Only in a country like ours, where the 
victor gets the spoils, can new technology be developed. 

And yet we also know that competition is a terrible way to get people do 
well. In No Contest: The Case Against Competition we see dozens of studies 
that show that, by all sorts of metrics, people’s performance (and enjoyment) 
goes down when they are forced to compete. Even worse, it goes down most 
notably for creative tasks — precisely the kind of thing involved in innovation. 

How do we resolve the contradiction? The key is to notice that competition, 
especially market competition, isn’t the only way to encourage experimentation. 
And that’s often hard to do, because typically market competition is treated 
as the only sensible form of competition and competition as the only sensible 
form of experimentation. But that’s not at all the case. 



Instead of providing a prize for winner, we could provide rewards to everyone 
who tries. And that actually makes sense — not only because prizes also 
decrease productivity and creativity — but also because, when it comes to 
experimentation, it’s not really your fault if the experiment doesn’t work. In 
fact, we want to encourage people to try crazy things that might not work, 
which is exactly why rewards are so counterproductive. 

But even if you don’t give an explicit prize, competition is still unhealthy. 
Contrary to what the apologists for market theology would like you to 
believe, people do not work better when they’re terrified of the guy next to 
them finding the solution first. Which is why we should look at this as simply 
experimentation, not competition. 

Experimentation can certainly be carried out cooperatively. Imagine many 
different scientists in a lab, each trying different ideas during the day, swapping 
notes and tips over lunch, perhaps joining together to form small groups for 
certain experiments, or perhaps helping with little pieces of other projects in 
which they have particular expertise. Each scientist may disagree on which is 
the right direction to pursue, but that doesn’t make them enemies. 

That’s the way that science progresses. And, if you let it, other things too. 

December 7, 2006 




How bizarre a book is The Enemy At Home, Dinesh D’Souza’s new screed 
insisting the left is responsible for Islamic extremism? Pretty bizarre. The 
book’s argument, according to the Times 1 is that “1) that the American left is 
allied to the Islamic radical movement to undermine the Bush White House 
and American foreign policy; and 2) that ‘the left is the primary reason for 
Islamic anti-Americanism...’ because ‘liberals defend and promote values 
that are controversial in America and deeply revolting to people in traditional 
societies, especially in the Muslim world.’” 

Follow that? The left is allies with Islamic extremists because the extremists 
hate the left. Just like Dinesh D’Souza. “[W]hen it comes to core beliefs,” 
he writes, “I’d have to confess that I’m closer to the dignified fellow in the 
long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap 
[Michael Moore].” 

In other words, it sounds like the right is allied with Islamic extremists in 
hating the liberal elements of American culture. What to do about this is 
left as an exercise to the reader. 

February 8, 2007 

1 . http : / /www . nyt imes .com/2007/02/0 6 /books / 0 6 kaku . html 





John Hockenberry is a long-time, well-known American journalist. He’s 
won four Emmy awards and three Peabody awards. Now that, as he puts it, 
“mainstream media doesn’t want John Hockenberry anymore,” he’s become 
a Distinguished Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, where he recently gave a 
talk which commented on some of his experiences covering the Iraq war 
while at NBC. 

Here are some excerpts: 

I was very happily employed at NBC. I wasn’t like, running around, 
trying to stuff toilet paper into the plumbing and sabotage the place. 

[. . .] But I was interested, because we had a lot of meetings at NBC 
about, you know, if you’re doing a story and the person you’re doing 
the story about offers to buy you a drink, you’ve gotta say no. If you’re 
doing a story and they send you, after they see the story, some napkin 
rings — silver napkin rings that are monogrammed “Thank you, Jon, 
for the story,” you’ve got not only to return those, you’ve got to report 
those to the standards people at NBC because there’s a whole ethics and 
conflict-of-interest thing. 

So at one of these ethics meetings — I called them the return-the-napkin- 
ring kinds of meetings — I raised my hand and said “You know, isn’t it 
a problem that the contract that GE has with the Coalition Provisional 
Authority [. . .] to rebuild the power generation system in Iraq [is] about the 
size of the entire budget of NBC? Is that kind of like the napkin rings thing?” 
And the standards people said “Huh. That’s interesting. No one’s brought 
that up before.” Now I’m not saying that Pm smart or that I’m advanced or 
that I’m ahead of my colleagues or maybe I had a lot of free time to think 
about this or maybe I’m some pinko-proto-lefty like Richard Nixon. I don’t 
know! But the fact that it drew a complete blank among the NBC standards 
people was interesting to me. 

[Now] in fact what happens in the networks — and you can find this 
at ABC and other networks at well — is that this [conflict with the 



profit motive] manifests itself [as journalists saying] “Well, we are better 
reporters because we deal with these kinds of conflicts all the time. 

And because we deal with those and we always decide in favor of the 
audience, it sort of exercises our journalistic muscle.” And this is the line 
you get from all of the entities. 

You may or may not be aware that there was a real strong full-court press 
to sell the media — and I’m not pro- or against it at this particular point, 
but there was a process in place where individuals in the media got access 
to the individuals involved in the planning of the war. There were generals 
who came in, there were former secretaries of defense, Schwarzkopf spent 
a whole lot of time giving sort of off-the-record, quiet briefings. And the 
generals would sort of bring in a certain group of editors and reporters and 
I went to all of these briefings. 

At one of them, Hockenberry explains, a well-known pollster told about a 
briefing he gave to all the senior officials at the White House about how the 
polling data from the Arab world showed that America’s negatives were simply 
off-the-charts. Everyone was quiet. Condi asked a few technical questions 
and then finally Karl Rove spoke up. “Well, that’s just until we start throwing 
our weight around over there,” he said. 

Hockenberry was stunned and thought they should do a piece on what this 
revealed into the mentality of the war’s planners. But NBC News didn’t think 
this was a very good idea. America wanted the war to happen; their job was 
just to wait and see how it turned out. “We’re not particularly interested in 
the story,” Hockenberry explains. “We’re a process that’s trying to maintain 
people in front of the set, so in a certain sense media at that point was doing 
its own kind of shock-and-awe that went right along with the war’s shock- 
and-awe [because] the business is just to grab eyeballs.” 

Later, his team edited together a montage of clips about what it was like for 
reporters who were still in Iraq to experience the shock-and-awe campaign. 
Vibrant images, narrated by a tense reporter who was on the ground at the 

We played this piece for the editors. And it was very moving, very powerful, 
and it was a very different perspective from what we were getting. And at the 



end [ . . . ] there was quiet around the table, because it was kind of an emotional 
piece and certainly the emotion in this reporter’s voice was detectable over 
a satellite phone line. 

And the standards person goes — and again, this is his job, I don’t begrudge 
him that — he goes, “Seems like, seems like she has a point of view here.” 

The table was silent. Just dead silent. And I was infuriated. But whenever I 
get this sort of infuriated feeling I think “You know, this is a career-ending 
moment here.” There is something I could say that would be right. There is 
something I could say that would be wrong. And there is something that I 
could say that would be right — and also would be wrong. 

And it was the beginning of the coverage of an event that would be 
extraordinary and I definitely wanted to be around to be a part of the next 
day’s coverage, but I had to say something. And it seemed as though, if nobody 
said anything, people would go “well, I guess we’ll have to tone her down.” 

So I said, “You mean, the war-is-bad point of view?” 

The piece aired. 

March 28, 2007 




It started way back in the eighties, with the Stay Free maxi-pads. At least, 
that’s what they said on this TV documentary I saw once. How could you tell 
people to protect their freedom when they thought you were talking about 
feminine hygiene products? I mean, you still had the words, of course, it wasn’t 
Orwellian or anything, they didn’t take away the words, they just “added” new 
meanings to them. Particular kinds of meanings. And who really wanted to 
use them after that? It made the whole idea of freedom seem kind of dirty. 

We don’t have freedom either, of course. Freedom lasted a little longer, 
before finally dying out in the late nineties when the name was taken by that 
pornography download software. I mean, try telling some guy in the street you’re 
just trying to protect your freedom. I’ve tried! He laughs and then he makes 
some sort of obscene sexual pantomime. Makes it kind of hard to be an activist. 

Activist took a little longer. Companies bought out the core concepts before they 
moved to the little stuff like us activists. Activist was what they called it when they 
privatized the sewer system in the late 2000s. “Activists are shit, ’’you used to hear 
the right-wingers say. Now they don’t even need to say it — it’s in the dictionary. 

So when I recruit kids I can’t tell them what they’d be. Saying they’d be 
activists is straight out, obviously. But I can’t even tell them we do protests. 
Protest is what they call it when you call AAA when your car breaks down. 
Kids don’t want to go around fixing broken cars. They’re not big on protests. 

Liberty quickly became the leading brand of thong underwear. Control is 
the #2 online role-playing game. Rights are the new name for gift certificates. 
Democracy is the kind of M8cMs where you get to pick the color. (“Geez 
man, we all like chocolate, but you’re taking things a bit too far,” is what the 
kids say when I tell them we need to fight to protect democracy.) 

It’s like a nightmare version of Intelligence (or, as it used to be called, Wheel 
of Fortune) .They bought up all my words. 

March 25, 2007 




Have you ever listened to that show on NPR, This American Life ? I don’t 
know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, it has to be one of the most 
amazing things to ever grace our country’s airwaves. Back when it started, 
over a decade ago now, it was unlike just about anything you heard on public 
radio. This wasn’t a show about news or music or comedy. It wasn’t even, really, 
a show about people. It was a show about stories, stripped down to their pure 
essence, people talking to you with a little bit of music in the background. 

Humans seem to have a natural craving for stories. Whatever the topic, 
it’s more fun to hear a story about it. Everyone tells stories. Everyone tells 
stories, but some people love crafting them until they’re perfect, like little 
pastries of information with curves in all the right places. And that’s what 
This American Life did each week on the radio: it presented three or four 
perfectly-crafted stories, all tangentially related to one loose theme, to your 
car or home for one full hour. 

A couple years ago the Showtime network called Ira Glass, the head and 
host of This America?! Life and asked him if he wanted to make a television 
version of his show. For most people, getting a call from a television network 
would be a fairly big deal. But not Glass. Every week, his radio show is heard 
by 1.6 million people. A hit show on Showtime gets half a million. So Glass 
said no, there was no way their show would work on television. Still, Showtime 
persisted, asking what it would take to make it work. So Glass thought of 
every crazy demand that came to mind. And Showtime met them all. 

The result, which premieres tonight on the pay-cable Showtime network, 
has to be one of the most amazing things to grace American television. It is 
unlike just about anything you’ve ever seen on TV. The best way I can think 
to describe it is this: Have you ever seen one of those stock photo movies? 
You know, the kind with the lusciously oversaturated colors, weird landscapes, 
and slow-motion movements? The kind of footage that makes the normal 
world look magical? Now, take that, and imagine an entire television show 
made out of it. It’s absolutely incredible. 



To promote the show, since Showtime isn’t exactly, This America?! Life went 
on a six-city tour. I caught them in Chicago, where a jam-packed crowd of 
dedicated fans (still pissed about the team moving to New York to film the 
TV show) came to hear “What I Learned From Television”. We were in the 
Chicago Theater, a local landmark that holds thousands. And, I have to say, 
it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater. 

You know how on the radio show, they do these incredibly moving stories 
that just send chills of emotion down your spine. Now imagine listening to 
that, in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people who all came out to hear 
the very same thing. I mean, these were people who cheered individual names 
in the credits at the end of the show. (We’ll miss you Elizabeth Meister!) I’ve 
never felt a room so charged with emotion before. 

So do these guys a favor. Do yourself a favor. Take your Nielsen box and 
switch it to Showtime tonight at 10:30. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever felt 

March 23, 2007 




It’s not hard to see why building technology to defend against nuclear 
missiles is tricky. First, there’s the obvious difficulty of shooting at a moving 
target — like a bullet shooting a bullet. Then there’s the fact that whatever 
device is defending you must itself be well defended, or else the enemy can 
simply take it out. And then there’s the nasty fact that with nuclear war, 
near-perfect defense is necessary — even a single failure can cause enormous 

What is hard is explaining why, despite this, so many people took the idea 
so seriously. That’s the question Frances FitzGerald takes up in Way Out 
There In The Blue, in which she uses the “Star Wars” initiative as a prism 
with which to understand the Reagan administration. Combined with Rick 
Perlstein’s forthcoming Nixonland, the books provide allegorical insight into 
our current government: Bush II has combined the criminality of Nixon with 
the intellectual emptiness of Reagan. 

Ronald Reagan was an actor. Even when off the set, he recited polished 
lines and played up a well-practiced demeanor. Indeed, he appears to have 
no inner life whatsoever. No one can be found to whom Ronald Reagan ever 
“opened up”; even his wife commented that “There’s a wall around him . . . 
even I feel that barrier.” As president, he was given the equivalent of shooting 
instructions specifying exactly where he was supposed to be every hour of 
the day and when he attended public events toe marks were chalked on the 
ground to indicate where he should stand. 

Considering the state of the American political system, having an actor 
for a President is perhaps not the worst idea. But what was problematic was 
that nobody — including Reagan’s closest aides — seemed to realize that 
that was what they were getting. For months they were continually shocked 
that Reagan refused to ever make a decision or take an action on any issue 
whatsoever. Instead, they watched dumbly as he simply listened to what he 
was told and nodded politely. When two of his subordinates disagreed, he 
was uncomfortable, but he steadfastly refused to intervene. 



The result was that decisions ended up getting made by whoever was 
around — Nancy Reagan, his wife; Michael Deaver, his aide in charge of public 
relations; etc. Reagan’s top people, such as his cabinet officials, frightened 
that they were actually making policy without any supervision, kept this fact 
secret from their staffs and the public until they all published their kiss-and- 
tell memoirs after Reagan had left office. Even more shocking, Reagan didn’t 
seem to mind when the members of this group changed. One day Reagan’s 
inner circle informed him that they were leaving and bringing the Treasury 
Secretary in to take their place. Reagan simply thanked them for their service. 

There was one thing Reagan did seem to care about (aside from politely 
answering his fan mail): speeches. Reagan would rewrite his own speeches, 
removing abstract verbiage and adding homespun stories. And it was out of 
this concern that he stumbled into launching the Star Wars initiative. 

After many years of right-wing propaganda about a “window of vulnerability” 
in our arms race with the Soviet Union, the Pentagon developed the MX 
missile series to ensure American superiority. The problem was where to put 
them. The MX missiles were designed to protect against the Soviets simply 
destroying all of our missiles, so they could not simply be put out in the 
open or the Soviets would simply destroy them as well. A variety of Rube 
Goldberg-like ideas were proposed to solve the problem. 

After a thorough investigation, the military concluded the best solution was 
what came to be called “the racetrack”: the missiles would be put on huge 
underground circular tracks, with little launching stations cut sporadically 
in the track. There would be several times more launching stations than 
missiles, so the Soviets would not know which stations to attack. But, to 
verify compliance with arms treaties, the stations could be opened so that the 
Soviets could see which ones contained missiles from space. 

The problem was that the racetracks would need to be huge and the only 
practical space for such a thing was in Utah. The Mormon Church was 
understandably unhappy about having a huge nuclear missile field being 
built near them and thus the powerful Republicans from that region of the 
country scuttled the plan. 

Other ideas were tried — the racetrack was converted to a straight line 



system, then to a configuration known as “Dense Pack” in which the missiles 
were all placed close together, in the hopes that all the missiles coming to 
attack them would blow each other up and perhaps spare some of our missiles. 
Another plan, known as “Big Bird”, had the missiles flying overhead on large 
transport planes, but it was scrapped when technicians raised concerns about 
the wings falling off. Another proposal involved hiding the missiles as normal 
luggage on cross-country passenger trains. It got to the point where the best 
idea was literally known as DUMB — deep underground missile basing — in 
which the missiles would be loaded on corkscrews which would drill down 
underground. Finally, they decided just to deploy the missiles in superficially- 
hardened housing, even though this meant they could be easily destroyed. 

At the same time, a mass popular movement for a nuclear freeze was 
growing, encompassing college students, churches, and many unpoliticized 
citizens. Reagan’s credibility on foreign policy was slipping away while books 
and movies and massive protests scared citizens into thinking about the 
unthinkable prospect of a nuclear holocaust. The Democrats were seizing 
power and mindshare and a nuclear freeze bill passed the House. Clearly 
something had to be done. 

Missile defense seemed like the perfect alternative. It didn’t require any 
diplomatic changes or sacrificing any weapons development — indeed, it 
allowed for more spending on research. But it allowed Reagan to use the 
language of the doves — a sincere desire to rid the world of the scourge 
of nuclear war. So when a Reagan aide proposed the idea (which the aide 
conceived of as a chip to be bargained away for with the Soviets) , Reagan seized 
upon the idea and worked it into a speech at the next available opportunity. 

There was just one problem: nobody had any idea how to make it work. The 
most prominent right-wing scientist, Edward Teller, was very excited about 
a new technology in which a high-powered X-ray could be sent along a rod 
to vaporize small objects. Teller proposed a large satellite with such rods 
sticking out of it, a device that came to be known as the “space-based sea 
urchin”. What happens when the Soviets target the defense? he was asked. 
Teller didn’t seem to have considered the question but, unfazed, came back 
the next day suggesting the defense weapons be stored underwater and “pop 
up” when missiles were overhead. 



Such debates disguised the fact that no actual missile defense technology 
existed or was likely to for a long, long time. Tactics and costs for disintegration 
rays and sea urchins could be discussed endlessly, but such discussion was 
irrelevant, as nobody knew how to build the key components. But this fact 
was carefully kept from politicians and the press who, ignorant of the science, 
continued to discuss missile defense as if it was a serious proposal. Thus, a 
majority of Americans were convinced that scientific ingenuity would find a 
way to protect the country — indeed, they believed it already had. 

But the sheen of a someday-to-be-developed missile defense system could 
not last forever — Reagan needed something more repeatable to boost 
his flagging poll numbers, especially in the wake of such scandals as Iran- 
contra. The result was an ongoing series of carefully-spun summits with 
the Soviets, in which the President claimed to be making good progress 
on negotiations for arms reduction. (That negotiated arms reduction could 
serve as a replacement for a missile defense initiative never seemed to occur 
to the Reagan administration; it was not exactly a group prone to analytical 

On the Russian side, Mikhail Gorbachev, a brilliant and daring new 
politician, had come to power. Gorbachev seemed more like an American 
figure than a Russian one — he spoke plainly, made daring moves toward 
peace, and played well for the cameras. For much of the following years, 
Gorbachev had higher poll numbers in the US than Reagan did. Washington 
was said to have been swept away with “Gorby fever” and “Gorbymania”. 

Gorbachev unilaterally made a series of striking reforms in both domestic 
and foreign policy. He offered the US a wide variety of concessions in 
disarmament talks, insisting only that the US stop the SDI program (the 
one principle which Reagan refused to concede). Then he begun the process 
of glasnost, increasing the freedom of the press and allowing a left-wing 
reform movement to develop. As part of this, he freed dissident physicist 
Andrei Sakharov, who proceeded to tell the media that SDI was a bluff that 
the US could never successfully develop. Shortly thereafter, Gorbachev was 
even willing to budge on that, allowing the US to continue SDI. Meanwhile, 
he begun the process of perestroika, reforming the Russian political and 
economic system to increase the scope of democracy. 



Meanwhile, Reagan’s side continued to bungle or misunderstand all of 
Gorbachev’s moves, using his disarmament proposals for little more than PR 
victories at home and continuing to insist his reforms were merely cosmetic 
attempts to prop up the old system. Reagan and Gorbachev continued to hold 
summits with plentiful photo opportunities, but little in the way of actual 
agreement was ever reached. 

Indeed, Reagan actually made Gorbachev’s reforms much more difficult by 
doing things like giving speeches demanding the General Secretary “tear down 
this wall”. Such speeches only lent credence to the conservatives who charged 
that Gorbachev was simply doing the West’s dirty work from the inside. 

Yet despite Reagan’s ineptitude, Gorbachev’s reforms took hold — perhaps 
even more strongly than he had intended — and the old Soviet system began 
to fall apart. Democratic parties were elected, troops were withdrawn, and 
the wall finally came down. 

But Americans were reluctant to believe that the destruction of the Soviet 
system had come from the reformers within it. Instead, they retrospectively 
lionized Reagan as the man whose tough talk had made the system come apart. 

March 13, 2007 





There is a theory (quite an elegant one, actually) that says that because we 
live in a marketplace of free choices we end up getting basically what we 
want — our dollars are like votes for the society we wish to live in. Many 
have challenged this view, from a variety of perspectives, but Tom Slee (who 
calls this notion Markeflhink) has chosen to focus on just one: the economic 
subfield of “game theory”. 

In his elegant little book, the poorly- titled No One Makes You Shop At Wal- 
Mart , , Slee walks through the major discoveries of game theory, explains 
them in simple language with reference to a fictional town ofWhimsley, and 
discusses how they refute standard economic conclusions while still playing 
by basic economic assumptions with effects that appear to show up in the 
real world. 

Take the problem of littering, for example. The town ofWhimsley has a 
large park between its coffee shop and its office building. Residents can toss 
their empty coffee cups on the ground in the park, thereby saving themselves 
the trouble of carrying it but minutely spoiling the park, or they can carry it 
to the trash at the office, saving the park but bothering their hands. In the 
absence of anyone else, each resident is better off tossing their cup — the 
bother of carrying it is much more than the small amount of spoilage. But 
if everyone does this, the park is quickly full of litter. Each individual, acting 
perfectly rationally, creates a situation that none of them want. 

A similar problem gives the book its title. Imagine you get some utility from 
having a vibrant downtown of independent shops. Then a Wal-Mart opens 
up on the outskirts of town. You begin shopping at the Wal-Mart because 
the prices are cheaper and you can still walk through the vibrant downtown 
when you like. But with everyone buying things at Wal-Mart, the downtown 
stores can no longer afford to stay open and the center of your city turns into 
an empty husk. You’d prefer to have the vibrant downtown to the Wal-Mart, 
but nobody ever gave you that choice. 



The book is full of dozens of examples like this, each with careful analysis 
and clear writing. Perhaps the most odd feature of the book is its politics. 
On the one hand, Slee is plainly a committed leftist, with positive references 
to Naomi Klein and other capitalist critics. But on the other hand, he never 
gives up on the rational actor and methodological individualist assumptions of 
modern economics, and shows little patience for those (typically his political 
allies) who have more thorough-going critiques. Nonetheless, the book is a 
recommended read for anyone interested in these questions. 

Online Bonus : Watch Tom Slee eviscerate Chris Anderson’s inbox- stuffer, The 
Long Tail on his weblog 1 , Whimsley. Because, remember folks, “Abundance, 
like growth itself, is a force that is changing our world in ways that we 
experience every day, whether we have an equation to describe it or not.” 
(p- 146) 

March 13, 2007 

1 . http : / / whims ley . typepad .com/ whims ley/2007/03/ the_long_tai 1_1 . html 




Ever see a study that makes you scratch your beard? Ever hear about a 
research result that makes you go “I wish everybody knew about this!”? Ever 
want to run into a congressman’s office and hit them over the head with a 
journal article? In this era of technological complexity and postmodern fiction, 
sometimes brain scans can reveal more about the human condition than a 
new novel. And yet, while the novels get detailed reviews in the New York 
Times, the best a research study is likely to get is an inaccurate description 
and some ambiguous quotes from the study’s authors. 

Well, here’s your chance to change that. In the comments, post your favorite 
study — the one that makes you sit up and say “wow, this result ought to 
change everything”. If you don’t mind, we’ll take the best to help fill up a 
new website we’re starting, collecting and sharing these new research results. 

I’ll go first: 

In 1994, the RAND Corporation, a major US military think tank, conducted 
a massive study (with funding from the Office of National drug Control 
Policy, the US Army, and the Ford Foundation) to measure the effectiveness 
of various forms of preventing the use of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. 

They analyzed a variety of popular methods and calculated how much it 
would cost to use each method to reduce cocaine consumption in the US by 
1%. Source-country control — military programs to destroy drug production 
in countries like Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia — are not just devastating to 
poor third-world citizens; they’re also the least effective, costing $783 million 
for a 1% reduction. Interdiction — seizing the drugs at the border — is a much 
better deal, costing only $366 million. Domestic law enforcement — arresting 
drug dealers and such — is even better, at $246 million. But all of those are 
blown completely out of the water by the final option: funding treatment 
programs for drug addicts would reduce drug use by 1% at a cost of only 
$34 million. 



In other words, for every dollar spent on trying to stop drugs through 
source-country control, we could get the equivalent of twenty dollars benefit 
by spending the same money on treatment. This isn’t a bunch of hippy liberals 
saying this. This is a government think tank, sponsored by the US Army 1 . 

April 24, 2007 

1 . http : / / www . rand . org/pubs / monograph_report s /MR3 31/ index2 . html 




“When I was disengaged myself, as above mentioned, from private 
business, I flattered myself that, by the sufficient though moderate 
fortune I had acquired, had secured leisure during the rest of my life 
for philosophical studies and amusements. I purchased all Dr. Spence’s 
apparatus, who had come from England to lecture in Philadelphia, and 
I proceeded in my electrical experiments with great alacrity; but the 
public, now considering me as a man of leisure, laid hold of me for their 
purposes; every part of our civil government — and almost at the same 
time — imposing some duty upon me. The Governor put me into the 
commission of the peace; the corporation of the city chose me one of 
the common council, and soon after alderman; and the citizens at large 
elected me a burgess to represent them in the Assembly.” 

(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography) 

April 22, 2007 




I recently attended a talk at Stanford by Walter Bradford Ellis, a too-little- 
known activist and writer on the issue of global poverty and world hunger. It’s 
transcribed from a recording I made. The sound quality was lousy, so apologies 
if I’ve mangled some of the specifics. 

Good evening. This is the first time I’ve spoken before a college audience, 
and therefore I would like to take advantage of your presence to ask you a 
few questions before I begin on my prepared speech. Basically I want to 
know how morally committed the students at a typical ‘good’ school are, and 
while I know an audience of several hundred from one school is neither large 
enough nor diverse enough to give an especially accurate picture, still the 
results should provide a rough indication of where the real truth lies. That’s 
sort of an interesting juxtaposition of words. ‘Truth lies’ I mean. 

Anyway, as I said, I’m interested in knowing how morally committed you are. 
I must say at the outset, I am pessimistic. At any rate, primarily what I want 
to find out tonight is how important it is to you for you to act according to 
your own definition of right and wrong. In other words I’m not interested in 
knowing what sort of behavior you think is right or wrong but merely how 
committed you are to living up to whatever standards of right and wrong 
you possess. 

I was trying to think a few minutes ago what questions I could ask you to 
find out this information, and it is very difficult to come up with anything 
satisfactory simply because individual standards of right and wrong vary so 
markedly. I had to pick a situation which seems perhaps a little silly because it 
is so improbable, but that is because I wanted as pure a case as possible — one 
which is in no way connected with any existing world situation — so that 
your prejudices and preconceived notions about a particular situation will 
play no part in your answers. 

My hypothetical circumstances are concerned with a person who murders 
innocent people, and I suspect that nearly every one of you will agree that 



that is wrong. So please now imagine yourself to be in an ancient country 
which is ruled over by an evil king who has absolute power of life or death 
over all his subjects — including yourself. Now this king is very bored, and 
so for his amusement he picks 10 of his subjects, men, women, and children, 
at random as well as an eleventh man who is separate from the rest. Now the 
king gives the eleventh man a choice: he will either hang the 10 people picked 
at random and let the eleventh go free, or he will hang the eleventh man and 
let the other 10 go free. And the eleventh man must decide which it is to be. 

Now if death is bad, then on average 10 deaths must be 10 times as bad as 
one. So hopefully nearly all of you will agree that the eleventh man should give 
up his life in order that the other 10 might live. But that is not the question 
I am asking you. I’m asking whether you would in fact make that sacrifice if 
you were the eleventh man — if you really did have to decide whether you or 
they would die. And you knew the king meant business because he did this 
every year and sometimes killed the 10 people and other times the eleventh 
depending wholly upon what the eleventh had decided. 

Now I am about to ask you for a show of hands, but of course I realize that 
few of you know yourselves so well that you can be certain of the correctness 
of your answer — especially if your answer is yes. Sol will simply ask you to 
hold up your hand and answer yes if you are any more than 50% certain that 
you would make that sacrifice. Understand? 

All right, all yes answers, please raise your hands. Let me see, that must be 
about a third of you. That’s more than I would have guessed. 

Now let me ask only those who are reasonably certain — say 95% 
certain — that they would make the sacrifice to please raise their hands. 

Yes. That’s more like what I expected. That’s at most a tenth of you. I have 
a feeling that most of that tenth of you are kidding yourselves, but perhaps 
human beings aren’t as selfish as I have always thought. 

Now just two more quick questions. Same situation except that the king 
says he will let his 10 hostages go free if you will go to prison for 20 years, 
otherwise he kills them. That’s an easier question to be sure of your answer 
about than the previous one, so this time answer yes only if you are quite 
certain — 95% or better. All right everybody hold up his hand if he is at least 



95% sure he would go to prison for 20 years in order to save 10 people’s lives. 

Well that looks like about three-quarters of you. Again I think you have 
overly high opinions of yourselves, or maybe some of you are too embarrassed 
to tell the truth, but I sincerely hope you are correct in your self-assessments. 

Just one question more now. The king says he will let his people go if you 
will agree to give him all the money you have and all the money you will make 
in the future, except of course enough for you to feed and house yourself and 
take care of all the absolute necessities. In other words he’s asking you to be 
poor, but not so poor that it impairs your health in any way. Again I’m asking 
for at least 95% certainty. All in that category please hold up your hands. 

Well that’s nearly every one of you! I’m very pleased; I hope you mean it. 
Perhaps in fact you do this time. After all, since you have the power to decide 
whether 10 people die or whether you give up your money, if you made the 
other decision you would be killing 10 people in order to make money for 
yourself, and surely that is murder. 

I see some head-shaking — itlooks as though a few of you disagree.The king has 
said, kill these 10 people or I’ll take your money. If you kill them, that is murder. 

Look at it another way. If you are poor and kill 10 people in order to steal 
their money, that is surely murder. But morally speaking, that situation is 
exactly the same as this one. In both situations if the people die, you will be 
rich; if they live, you will be poor, and it is within your power to decide which 
it is to be. In either situation if you decide that they should die in order that 
you can be rich, you have put your happiness, or not actually even that, you 
have put material riches for yourself above 10 people’s lives. That is the moral 
error you have made and it is exactly the same for both cases. One is as bad 
as the other and if one is murder so is the other. 

Anyway, those are all the questions I wanted to ask you. I didn’t mean to 
spend as much time on them as I did, but at least from my point of view it 
was well worth the time. Thanks for your indulgence, and also for your soul- 
searching — I guess those weren’t easy questions to answer if you answered 
them honestly. Just be happy it was a make-believe situation and none of you is 
likely ever to really be forced to make any of those rather unpleasant decisions. 



And now I’ll get on to what is supposed to be my topic: world hunger. 

In 1650 the population of the world was 500 million (500M). Within the 
next 50 years an absolute minimum of 500M people will starve to death. 
The UN reports that around 10M people starve to death every year and the 
problem is only going to get worse as the population increases. 

Perhaps that figure of 500M is too large for you to grasp in abstract terms. 
Let me translate it into something more concrete: if those 500M people were 
all to join hands, then figuring at about 1,000 people per mile, they would 
form a line long enough to stretch to the moon and back — with enough 
left over to reach across the United States 6 times. Or if you prefer keeping 
things more down to earth, they would reach 20 times around the world. 

The US Army’s M-16 machine-gun fires 700 rounds per minute, or about 
12 rounds per second. If you drove a car past the line of people at a little 
over 40 miles per hour, you would pass 700 people every minute. If you used 
poisoned bullets or some such deadly concoction, you might be able to kill 
1 person with every shot as you drove past. If you kept your finger on the 
trigger for 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, killing 1 person with every shot, it 
would take you 3 years and 4 months to kill them all. 

It is a rather gruesome picture, and yet all these people — and probably 
many more — are absolutely doomed to die in the next 25 to 50 years. And 
it won’t be the quick, easy death of a bullet, but the slow, pitiful, wasting 
death of starvation. 

There is one bright spot in all this, however — the legions of the doomed 
will not really reach quite 20 times around the world. Perhaps they’ll really 
only reach 12 or 15 times around, for most of them are children and their 
arms are short. 

Opposed to these ravaged peoples of the world are the gluttons of America. 
You yourselves are good examples. As future graduates of a good college, it 
is surely within the grasp of most of you to be making a salary, after taxes, 
of $50,000 or more within a few years. How much money is that? Well, 
you could easily take care of all the true necessities of life for $20,000, thus 
leaving you $30,000 for the luxuries. In America, anyone can stay healthy 



spending five dollars a day for food. It is not even hard to do. If one really 
skimps, he can stay alive and well for a dollar — for I have done it. If it can 
be done in America for a dollar a day, it can surely be done for that in the 
countries where people are starving. Thus your $30,000 of luxury money 
could be providing 82 people with a dollar worth of food a day — people 
who otherwise might starve. Since presumably if your $30,000 were donated 
to UNICEF, they would take care to pick out poorer than average people, 
I think it not unreasonable to state that $30,000 per year over a period of 
40 years is enough to keep healthy 10 people who would otherwise starve 
to death — plus a good many more who would otherwise be malnourished. 

So you see, I lied to you a little while ago when I said none of you would ever 
have to make any of those three unpleasant decisions. You will never have to 
make the first or the second — the two hardest choices — but you are this 
moment confronted with the third: for the 10 who would otherwise starve 
are the 10 hostages, you are the eleventh man, and hunger is the king. Thus 
if you decide to go on with the life you were probably planning to lead, you 
will be letting 10 people die rather than give up your flat-screen television 
and your cocktail parties. And that is more than gluttony, it is murder. 

Good evening. 

Aaron again. I’d like to make a few remarks about the speech, but 
before I do I should admit something. The speech was not given by 
Walter Bradford Ellis. Instead, it was written by a too-little-known 
philosopher named Louis Pascal. He published it in the 1980s under 
the same subterfuge in the journal Inquiry and it was reprinted in Peter 
Singer’s collection Applied Ethics. (I have modified it to bring the 
numbers up to date and shortened it a little to make it more blog-sized.) 
He justifies the subterfuge as necessary to get readers to more seriously 
engage in the thought experiment. I do think it would be wonderful to 
have this talk given in person, however. If you are interested in pursuing 
this, please let me know. 

If you do want to help needy people, you can donate to UNICEF or Oxfam. 

December 6, 2007 




People don’t like being told that they’re bad. And they especially don’t like it 
if it’s going to cost them a lot to be good. Finding other ways out is preferable, 
even if it requires some violence to the truth. Today we look at some ways 
people try to evade responsibility. 

[ Please read the previous article “The Handwriting on the Wall" before continuing] 

A large number of people insist that “things aren’t proven” or “aid doesn’t 
work”. In his 1996 book Living High and Letting Die Peter Unger reports a 
study where he found that, including in administrative expenses and other 
overhead, $200 could feed a malnourished child through the highest-risk 
childhood years. UNICEF just recently released a new report 1 finding that, 
for the first time, the number of children dying before 5 has fallen, thanks 
to their intervention. And Oxfam, to take just one example, through its 
development projects in Cambodia has helped over 35,000 people 2 come to 
support themselves. Doctors Without Borders reports 3 that they treated 10 
million people last year, treating 26,000 people from cholera, for example, 
and treating 63,000 children for malnutrition. Even the most vocal critics of 
aid, like William Easterly, who has written many books and op-eds attacking 
government aid programs as unhelpful, has to concede that private projects 
like Oxfam and UNICEF are successful and positive. Nobody, of course, 
provides any real argument against these things. They just say it’s “too unclear”. 

If that’s the real issue, then donate to an organization like Poverty Action 
Lab 4 at MIT. PAL does controlled randomized trials of the success of aid 
interventions. Your money won’t go directly to help people, but it will help 
to test other people’s aid interventions and improve their effectiveness. A 
recent repor' finds that mass deworming programs dropped infections by 23 
points and increased school participation by 25% (thanks, in part, to spillover 
effects), apparently caused children to grow taller and healthier, and cost only 
$5 for each disability-adjusted year of life saved. 

Barry Kelly insists that he has no duty to help others and thus is not culpable 



for their suffering. Of course, this is an irrelevance. Nobody is trying to put 
him on trial — just arguing he should do more to help. 

But Barry goes one step further: he says that he should not help because 
giving his money to starving people would lead to “lack of incentive to 
compete, lack of investment base for risky & experimental ventures, and 
congealing layers of bureaucracy feeding on income redistribution. ’’Taking 
this at face value for a moment, it is not clear to me why why saving people 
from starvation would cause the first two — wouldn’t there be a huge incentive 
to compete for saving lives and trying new experimental techniques in doing 
so? Perhaps Barry means that the first-world might have less competition 
in a field like, say, luxury watches. I don’t see this as a tragedy. It amazes me 
that someone would admit that they prefer to have millions of people starve 
to death than to have a complicated bureaucracy. 

In response, Barry explains that “there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis”. 
He does not explain what he wants to analyze. Should we make a little chart 
with the benefits of competition in the luxury watch market on one side and 
the benefits of saving people from starvation on the other? 

He also argues that we should do nothing about starvation because many 
people die in car accidents. I am not sure how this is relevant, but I deplore 
the deaths of people in car accidents and personally do not drive because of it. 

Sohail provides the amazing argument that one shouldn’t donate to UNICEF 
because “They have a business model that revolves around needy people. 
To keep the model going, you need needy people.” It is not clear how this 
principle is supposed to work. Are the people at UNICEF supposed to be 
quietly sabotaging their efforts in order to preserve their jobs? Since non- 
profit employees generally take large salary cuts and do unusually- onerous 
work, this seems wildly unlikely. If they wanted a safe job they would surely 
join the for-profit sector. Sohail provides no evidence for this amazing claim. 

MC argues that people will starve since he no longer purchases their 
products. But certainly fewer people will starve if he spends his money 
directly on keeping people from starving as opposed to having people not 
starve incidentally because he is purchasing TVs from them. Is he claiming 
that the people not starving right now somehow have a special right not to 



starve? It’s hard to see why that would be the case. 

That Hypothetical says that “Development economics is a complex subject.” 
I’m not sure how this is relevant. Perhaps in the ancient society the King has 
a lot of scholars working for him making the issue of how to decide which 
person to choose into some complex subject. That doesn’t change the moral 

Mike Bruce says that if we all spent our disposable income on helping 
starving people, we might face economic collapse. This seems absurd but 
also certainly isn’t a question anyone is facing. Even if all the readers of this 
blog spent all their disposable income on preventing starvation, that would 
be inconsequential in economic terms. 

There are actual arguments against the issues raised in the last article. These 
are not them. 

December to, 2007 

1 . http: / /www. 1403 .htm 

2 . http: / /www. 

3 . http : / /www . doctorswithoutborders . org/publications/ ar/i2006/ index . cfm 

4 . http : / /www . povertyactionlab . org / 

5 . http: / /www. pdf 





What follows is my summary of The Visible Hand by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. 


It’s difficult today to imagine what American companies were like before the 
1840s. They were small concerns, owned and operated by the same person in 
one location, and focusing on a particular type of product (cotton, provisions, 
wheat, dry goods, hardware, drugs) and one piece of the distribution chain 
(retailing, wholesaling, importing, exporting). Their corporate structure (the 
partnership), accounting techniques (double-entry bookkeeping), and financial 
instruments (letters of credit) were essentially unchanged from those used 
by the Italians in the 1390s. 

Bigger projects were pursued through personal relationships between small 
firms: family farms had their slaves grow crops, which they sold to the local 
merchant, who shipped it to his son or nephew in London, who sold it to the 
local merchants there, and thence to the customers. (At the same time, credit 
headed the other direction.) As time went on, the number of intermediaries 
only increased: factors and jobbers and brokers and dealers and commission 
agents. Coordination was handled through the market. 

(The one exception was the Bank of the United States, which had branches 
in many locations and thus could coordinate on something of a national scale. 
But it was politically unpopular and both the First and Second banks were 
allowed to expire by Congress.) 

There was incredible inefficiency, but it mattered little since the technology 
of the time did not allow for great speed or volume. Canal boats were still 
pulled by animals, for whom four miles an hour was an impressive speed, 
and most products (clothing, furniture, clocks, nails) were produced by hand 
in people’s homes through the “putting-out” system. There were a handful 
of textile factories, but since they depended on water-power there was only 
room for a few of them. 




All this changed with the railroads, a technological improvement which 
allowed business to move their products vastly faster. Careful coordination 
was essential (one didn’t want trains crashing into each other), market entry 
expensive (constructing a railroad line cost a great deal of money), and network 
effects powerful (a railroad was much more valuable if it could move things 
all the way across the country). 

As a result, the railroads built big enterprises, with professional managers 
to operate them. The businesses were the first to be structured along largely 
modern lines (the line- and- staff system): a board of directors appointed a 
professional manager as president, who oversaw a series of vice presidents 
supervising various company-wide topics (finance, traffic, legal) as well as a 
general manager. The general manager oversaw a number of divisions, each 
with departmental managers with profit and loss responsibility and a staff 
of their own. Each department sent statistics back to headquarters, allowing 
senior management to improve overall efficiency. 

In addition to consolidating various different roles into a single organization, 
the railroads consolidated different organizations into a cartel with a few large 
players who coordinated pricing schemes and extracted the maximum each 
merchant was able to pay. The quintessential player in this era of empire- 
building was the speculator Jay Gould and his nemesis Cornelius Vanderbilt. 

Gould got his start in 1868 when Vanderbilt attempted to seize control of 
the Erie railroad, the nearest competitor to his New York Central. Gould 
succeeded in stopping him and became the Erie’s largest stockholder and 
president. He then leased two additional lines and purchased shareholder 
proxies for two more lines, which he used to vote new directors into power, 
who then agreed to sell the lines to the Erie. (The courts and legislature 
quickly moved to stop him and the Pennsylvania seized control of the lines.) 
He merged with additional lines in Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan, before 
attempting to corner the market on gold, leading to a stock market crash. The 
crash forced other lines to sell, but Vanderbilt had more funds and bought 
them up. 

Gould had more success in the telegraph industry, where consolidation 



came even more rapidly. Gould’s railroads had contracts with Western Union 
allowing it to operate telegraph lines along the road. He canceled the contracts 
and signed agreements to partner with the lines attached to several other 
railroads. After he bought ocean lines to Latin America, Western Union was 
scared enough to purchase the competitor. (Gould sealed the deal by offering 
Vanderbilt, Western Union’s largest stockholder, a controlling stake in one 
of his railroads if he persuaded the board to go through with the purchase.) 
After the sale, Gould started a new company with the telegraph lines of his 
remaining railroads, signed several additional deals, and announced plans 
to build a transatlantic cable. Western Union stock plummeted and Gould 
bought it up, becoming his competitor’s largest shareholder. He used this 
position to persuade Western Union to purchase his competitor at an inflated 
price and become the controlling member ofWestern Union’s board, a position 
he used to fend off any future competitors. 

Theodore Vail played a similar role at AT&T, while local utilities (power, 
light, heat) ended up being operated by regulated “natural monopolies”. 
Soon the nation’s infrastructure was entirely owned by either public (e.g. the 
post office) or private (AT&T) monopolies. In each case, it was operated by 
professional managers who planned and controlled the entire system. 


The new national infrastructure (railroads, telegraph, steamships, post office) 
allowed for new national distributors (wholesalers, department stores, mail- 
order houses, chains) which were themselves organized and managed in the 
same ways. Department stores, for example, had a manager in charge of each 
department, with only things like janitors and delivery people shared across 
the entire store. 

Such big stores moved to also take the place of wholesalers by building 
their own distribution networks and, in time, take control of manufacturing 
as well. Large mail-order houses like Sears Roebuck began building systems 
of conveyer belts and pneumatic tubes for ensuring orders got assembled 
promptly — along with systems for punishing those who held the line 
up. And the geographically-distributed chain stores organized themselves 
under regional managers who kept tabs on local performance with a team 
of inspectors. 



Geographic centralization, automation, and employee monitoring allowed 
such national concerns to move goods faster, which made them more efficient 
than the numerous local stores they put out of business. It was economies 
of speed, not of scale. 

A similar speeding-up happened in production. The opening of the coal 
mines provided cheap power for new factories with mass-production machines 
while railroads provided a market their output. The factories were set up as 
simple assembly lines operating continuous-process machines, like those 
built to cut wheat, solder cans, and roll cigarettes. Henry Ford extended this 
system into assembly with his “moving assembly line” in which continuous 
conveyor belts moved parts past the workers. In each factory, managers 
personally oversaw the line foremen who oversaw each part of the process. 
By the 1880 census, 80% of manufacturing employees worked in factories, 
with the putting-out system remaining only for clothing. 

Fredrick W. Taylor encouraged factories to speed up even further by 
following his system of “scientific management”. He proposed a company’s 
lines be run by a planning department which would conduct careful time- 
and-motions studies to discover the optimal way to carry out each part of 
the process. Line-level managers would then be responsible for ensuring that 
individual employees kept producing at the optimal rate. Few followed Taylor’s 
recommendations exactly, especially his suggestion to place the planning 
department in charge of the lines, but many companies adopted his ideas to 
accelerate their factories. 


The new speeds, in turn, produced so many products that the national 
stores couldn’t sell them all, leading the manufacturers into distribution and 
marketing of their own. They began building a regional sales staff, doing 
national ad campaigns, and buying up competitors. The result was national 
brands like American Tobacco, Diamond Match, Quaker Oats, Pillsbury 
Flour, Campbell Soup, Heinz, Borden, Carnation, Libby, Procter & Gamble, 
and Kodak — most of which remain leaders today. 

Why did these few leaders achieve such domination? It was not thru their 
superior technology — they leased the machines they use for assembly. Nor 



was it their marketing acumen — they all hired professional marketers for 
the job. And it could not be the power of their brands, for they all invented 
these brands from scratch. Instead, it was their superior organization that 
provided the main barrier to entry. Anyone who wanted to compete would 
have to build their own national network of managers, buyers, and salesmen. 

And even this was made more difficult for competitors. The first-mover was 
able to start small, use profits to fund growth, and use the resulting economies 
of scale to lower prices while expanding nationally. But any competitor would 
have to start out by competing against this national, low-price network. They 
would either have much higher per- item costs since they were producing so 
much less or they would have to borrow enormous amounts of capital to build 
a high-volume network from the beginning. And who would want to fund 
such a risky endeavor? Newcomers did appear (Kellogg, Postum, Colgate, 
Babbitt) but they were rare and the industries remain oligopolies. 

Industrial products (lumber, petroleum, metal, etc.) also began forming 
national oligopolies. It started with industry-wide trade associates, which 
quickly became cartels that conspired to fix prices. However, the incentive to 
cheat on the cartels by secretly lowering prices was too great and, since cartels 
were illegal, there was no legal way to prevent it. So companies moved to form 
trusts, in which one firm would hold in trust the shares of the other firms in 
exchange for shares of itself. When the Sherman Antitrust Act outlawed trusts, 
New Jersey stepped in to allow the creation of holding companies — easy- 
to-establish corporations which simply held the stock of other corporations. 
But in the early 1900s the courts ruled that even this form violated the law 
and the companies moved to merge outright, forming a single corporation. 

But such horizontal integration was rarely very profitable. The real success 
always came from vertical integration: taking control of suppliers and 


Managers who oversaw the factories carefully measured their efficiency. They 
wanted to maximize the use of the expensive equipment they had purchased, 
so the repeatedly pushed to speed up the lines and use them more efficiency. 
This increased efficiency resulted in increased production which resulted in 



corporate growth which naturally required more lines. 

At the same time corporations continued this within-industry expansion, 
higher-level managers saw the generic processes at work and pushed for 
between-industry expansion: reusing the same management structures and 
same tools to grow the company and brand into new businesses. 

And thus, managerial capitalism — the corporate form in which professional 
managers ran large, national corporation whose owners had at most veto 
power over their efforts — spread across the country. Their administrative 
coordination allowed for greater productivity and lower costs, but required 
a managerial hierarchy which could carry out more functions. The managers 
also allowed them to increase volume, but also allowed the managers to 
ensure a permanent place for themselves. The task of management became 
more technical and specialized and management became separated from 
ownership. As a result, managers were able to direct the company in ways 
that favored stability over profits, and the resulting huge enterprises changed 
the shape of the economy. 

March 2, 2008 




Imagine you were suddenly put in charge of Google. What would you spend 
your time doing? Branding? The Google brand is pretty important, but it’s 
not really something you can control directly; it’s more of a side-effect of the 
other decisions you make. (If your legal team decides to give up the names 
of Chinese dissidents to the secret police, that’s going to hurt your brand.) 
Product design? Clearly this is also important, but at a company the size of 
Google it’s too big a job for one person — most of Google’s innovative new 
products are designed by rank-and-file engineers. Strategy? This is a good 
one, and probably what Google’s current rulers spend most of their time on, 
but I’m skeptical as to how good anyone can really be at long-term strategy 
with such a huge company. Hiring? Obviously hiring is pretty important, but 
even the greatest group of people aren’t going to save your company if they 
waste their time once their inside. 

No, I think the most important thing a person in charge of a large company 
can work on is sociology — designing the social structure of the company. 
It’s the sociology that determines who gets hired, what their life is like, how 
much freedom they have, what sorts of things they work on, etc. Clearly these 
structures determine an enormous amount about the corporation. And yet, 
strikingly, I’ve never heard of a single corporation that has a high-level group 
devoted to studying and improving them. 

“Practical men,” Keynes famously wrote at the end of his General Theory 1 , 
“who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, 
are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” And sociology seems to 
have worked out much the same way. Chandler claims 2 that the modern 
command-and-control corporation was worked out just about identically 
by several different people around the same time and its military methods 
have been with us ever since. 

Despite enormous changes in the kinds of things big companies do as well 
as in the way that they do them, the actual structure of the large corporation 
(with very few exceptions) has hardly changed at all. It’s gotten to the point 



where even tinkering with the cubicle seems radical. 

Since such questions are so alien, let me give a sense of the questions I mean. 
For example, how do you hire? Right now, it appears that at Google each team 
gets to hire people for its projects and then once you’re inside Google you 
get to switch to another project if you like. Why not have a team dedicated 
to hiring which tries to find the best way to pick the best people as well as 
making sure they match a particular company culture? 

Also, how do projects get picked? Do you have a command-and-control 
structure deciding what things need to get worked on from the top? Do you 
let everybody work on what they like? Do you let the company vote on what 
its priorities should be? 

What do you do with people who don’t work out? Do you have performance 
reviews? Bonus pay? Three-strikes firing offenses? Or do all these systems 
just make working more frightening and problematic? 

It seems to me any reasonable company ought to have a whole department 
dedicated to working on these issues, studying the systems that are in place, 
studying the kinds of things that others have tried, and doing their own 
experiments to see if they can do things better. And yet, to my knowledge, no 
one does. Even the handful of companies that do something innovative with 
their corporate structure did it as a one-off — they have no team dedicated 
to coming up with and trying new such innovations. 

Now normally when you discover that everyone else is doing something 
wrong, there’s an opportunity for you to get ahead by doing it right. But 
that’s much more difficult here, because these questions only really make 
sense for large organizations and very few of us find ourselves in charge of 
large organizations. For example, its arguable that Fog Creek 3 has done some 
things along these lines, but it’s pretty difficult to tell since they’ve never had 
more than a couple dozen people. 

Instead, the real innovation hasn’t come from companies, but the online 
peer-production projects, like GNU/Linux, that take contributions from a 
distributed set of volunteer contributors. But such groups solve the problem 
largely through eliminating it — they don’t have to worry about who to hire 



and how to treat them because they don’t hire anyone. 

Instead, most of the people who work on GNU/Linux are hired by other 
companies where they must contend with the antiquated social structures 
that those companies provide. And since those are the brutal facts that most 
humans must contend with, it would be nice if more people were thinking 
about alternatives. 

April 15, 2008 

1 . http : / /www.marxists . org/reference/ sub ject/economics/keynes/ general- 
theory /ch2 4 .htm 

2. see article "The Visible Hand: A Summary" 

3 . http : / /www . f ogcreek . com/About . html 




American intellectual life has a large number of ways of responding to 
an argument without actually addressing its substance — namecalling in 
other words. You can say that someone is “blaming the victim” or spinning 
a “conspiracy theory” or “assuming people are stupid” or that they’re subject 
to “false consciousness”. 

Most of these are kind of transparently silly, but even otherwise smart 
people seem to think the false consciousness charge has some heft to it. The 
argument is never fully spelled-out, but the argument seems to be that to 
think that people are systematically mistaken about their own interests is the 
kind of crazy idea that only vulgar Marxists would believe and, furthermore, 
it requires assuming that people are stupid and explaining how you’ve been 
able to see past the illusion. 

Well, I’m personally not under any illusion that providing a rational 
explanation is going to stop people from leveling this charge, but I figure 
one ought to, if only to set the record straight. 

Let’s begin with a parable — a simplified case that will at least establish 
whether some of these arguments are logically true. Imagine a new regime 
comes to power that decides to imprison everyone with red hair. They insist 
that there is nothing amiss about this — they were elected democratically, and 
furthermore, everyone imprisoned is still allowed to vote. But inside the prisons, 
they only permit limited contact with the outside world. Most prisoners only 
watch the one prison-provided news station which is systematically biased, 
constantly suggesting that the Purple Party is in favor of additional rights 
for red-haired people while their opponents, the Yellow Party, just used the 
red-haired issue for pandering. (Anyone who’s watched, say, Fox News discuss 
black issues will know how this is possible.) The result is that when election 
time rolls around, the majority of red-haired prisoners vote for the Purple 
Party candidate who gets into power and provides no new rights for them. 

Call it false consciousness or not, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to look 



at this situation and say while the red-haired prisoners are not stupid, they 
are systematically mistaken, which is leading them to act against their own 
interests. If they knew the truth they would vote for the Yellow Party, the party 
which wants to take steps to get them out of prison, instead. Furthermore, it’s 
possible to imagine that there are some prisoners who, through one means 
or another, have learned this and thus are able to see this situation while the 
other prisoners do not. (They try to tell the other prisoners what’s going on, 
but they keep getting labeled conspiracy theorists.) 

Now obviously vast portions of America are not imprisoned. But most people 
do get their news from a small number of sources and I think everyone would 
agree that, in one way or another, these sources are systematically biased. (You 
can argue about which way they’re biased or whether it makes a difference, 
but I think it’s pretty clear that all the major news sources share a general 
conception of what is “news” and what isn’t.) So why is it so implausible that 
something similar is going on? 

The major difference between the two scenarios is that in the first, people 
were basically forced to watch the biased news, while in the real world they 
have lots of other alternatives. But I’m not sure this matters as much as it 
might seem at first. 

First, most people have busy lives that don’t revolve around the news or 
politics and thus are going to get the news in the most convenient form 
they can. For most people, this is typically television or the newspaper. But 
starting a new television station or newspaper is very expensive, especially if 
you want it to have wide reach, and the only projects that can get funding 
and advertising are those that buy into at least some of the systematic biases. 
So for most people, there simply isn’t a better alternative when it comes to 
the formats they want. 

Second, even if someone gets their news from the Internet or another 
source where getting started is less expensive, they may not know about the 
alternatives. If you grew up with your parents reading the New York Times you 
may simply live your life checking in on, without ever stopping 
to wonder whether the news you were getting was systematically biased and 
whether there was some more preferable alternative. 



Again, just as there was no way for the prisoners to know they were being 
lied to, it’s not really reasonable for the average person to figure out that they’re 
getting biased news if the only news they read comes from biased sources. 

Now I’m not arguing here that this idea is true (that would require more 
real-world evidence), merely that it’s possible. The fact is that we live in a 
world where most people get their information about what’s going on from 
a very small number of sources which tend to report largely the same things 
in the same way. This seems like a rather important fact of life and I think 
we ought to stop dismissing suggestions that it might have some negative 
effects on people out of hand. 

May 19, 2008 




Often sociologists notice a pattern in which certain attributes of a social 
system fits well with a particular social structure. To take an example I have 
at hand, Rosabeth Moss Kanter notes that because a secretary has access 
to facts that could embarrass her boss, it’s convenient for the boss that the 
secretary is entirely dependent upon him for wages and status. 

Unfortunately, these claims are often phrased as saying X causes Y. Here’s 
how Kanter does it: 

The possibilities for blackmail inherent in [a secretary’s] access ... to 
the real story behind the boss’s secrets . . . made it important that she 
identify her interest as running with, rather than against, his. Thus, forces 
were generated for the maintenance of a system in which the secretary 
. . . was to find her status and reward level dependent on the status and, 
hence, success of her boss. ( Men and Women of the Corporation , 82) 

Note that, although she is unusually careful to hedge her comments (“made 
it important”, “forces were generated”, “maintenance of a system”) Kanter 
is making a particular historical claim here: the secretary could blackmail, 
which pushed the boss to tighten control. But this is not the type of claim 
that Kanter, who’s research consisted mostly of direct observation of present- 
day offices, is likely to have any real evidence for. 

Making such claims is problematic, both because most sociologists don’t 
really know whether they are strictly true, and because they lead Jon Elster 
to show up at your house and yell at you for hours. But both problems can be 
easily avoided: simply rephrase such comments to describe the phenomena 
as effects rather than causes. 

Instead of saying a secretary’s ability to blackmail leads bosses to tighten 
their grip, simply note that the boss’s tight grip has the effect of weakening 
the secretary’s ability to blackmail. You get all the same points across and 
nobody gets hurt. See? Easy. 

May 13, 2008 




In 1915, Alfred Wegener argued that all the continents of Earth once used 
to fit together as one giant supercontinent, which he later named Pangea. 
As Wikipedia summarizes: 

In his work, Wegener presented a large amount of circumstantial 
evidence in support of continental drift, but he was unable to come up 
with a convincing mechanism. Thus, while his ideas attracted a few early 
supporters . . . the hypothesis was generally met with skepticism. The one 
American edition of Wegener’s work . . . was received so poorly that the 
American Association of Petroleum Geologists organized a symposium 

specifically in opposition By the 1930s, Wegener’s geological 

work was almost universally dismissed by the scientific community and 
remained obscure for some thirty years. 

Today, of course, every schoolchild knows about Pangea. But for a long 
time the theory was dismissed, not because it lacked evidence or predictive 
power — it explained why the shapes of the continents fit together, why 
mountain ranges and coal fields lined up, why similar fossil were found 
in places separated by oceans, and so on — but because Wegener had no 
plausible mechanism. 

A similar problem happens in the social sciences. Paul Krugman recently 
noted 1 that while Larry Bartels (in his new book Unequal Democracy) provides 
solid, convincing evidence that Republican presidents systematically preside 
over slower growth and increasing inequality, most social scientists don’t 
believe him because we haven’t yet identified the mechanisms. Krugman: 

Now, I’m a big Bartels fan; I’ve known about this result for quite a 
while. But I’ve never written it up. Why? Because I can’t figure out 
a plausible mechanism. Even though I believe that politics has a 
big effect on income distribution, this is just too strong — and too 
immediate — for me to see how it can be done. Sure, Republicans want 
an oligarchic society — but how can they do that? 



Bartels, for his part, argues that 2 providing the mechanisms isn’t his job — his 
goal is to highlight the phenomena and encourage many others to research 
the mechanisms: 

How do presidents produce these substantial effects ? 

One of my aims in writing Unequal Democracy was to prod 
economists and policy analysts to devote more attention to precisely 
that question. Douglas Hibbs did important work along these lines 
. . . He found that Democrats favored expansionary policies . . . while 
Republicans endured and sometimes prolonged recessions in order to 
keep inflation in check. (Not coincidentally, unemployment mostly 
affects income growth among relatively poor people, while inflation 
mostly affects income growth among relatively affluent people.) In 
recent decades taxes and transfers have probably been more important. 
Social spending. Business regulation or lack thereof. And don’t forget the 
minimum wage. Over the past 60 years, the real value of the minimum 
wage has increased by 16 cents per year under Democratic presidents 
and declined by 6 cents per year under Republican presidents; that’s a 
3% difference in average income growth for minimum wage workers, 
with ramifications for many more workers higher up the wage scale. So, 
while I don’t pretend to understand all the ways in which presidents’ 
policy choices shape the income distribution, I see little reason to doubt 
that the effects are real and substantial. 

When it comes to addressing such arguments more generally, the most famous 
commentator is Jon Elster. In his classic article “Marxism, Functionalism, 
and Game Theory 3 ”, he insists: 

Without a firm knowledge about the mechanisms that operate at the 
individual level, the grand Marxist claims about macrostructures and 
long-term change are condemned to remain at the level of speculation. 

(To be fair, Elster doesn’t make this as a general argument, but his vehemence 
has led some of his followers to suggest that it is.) 

To be clear, I think discovering mechanisms is important work. All I’m 
arguing is that it shouldn’t be a necessity for believing in a theory. Instead, 



I believe it’s an irrational side-effect of an emotional distaste for gaps in 

As evidence, let me note that such demands for mechanisms never go more 
than one level deep. Nobody has ever said, “Well, your theory that people 
are motivated by greed is all very nice, but I just can’t believe it until you can 
explain how greed is manifested in the brain.” Neuroscience is obviously 
the microfoundation of psychology, but psychological theories are regularly 
accepted without neuroscientific microfoundations. 

In general, it seems like such commentators support a double-standard. 
Theories with mechanisms should be judged by their fit with the evidence 
and predictive power. Theories without mechanisms should be judged by the 
evidence and predictive power and whether you can think of any plausible 
mechanisms. I don’t see how this can be justified. There’s no reason mechanism 
should be privileged in the assessment of knowledge; things are true or false, 
even if we don’t know why they are true or false. 

Indeed, it we typically only investigate the causes of phenomena once we’re 
convinced that they exist. (Elster admits as much in Explaining Social Behavior , 
noting that establishing a phenomena’s existence is the first step towards 
explaining it.) So let’s stop making the mistake of not believing things are 
true because we don’t know how they happen. 

May 14, 2008 

1 . http: / /krugman. blogs. 

2 . .html 

3 . http : / /www . geocities . com/hmelberg/elster /AR82MFGT . HTM 




Newspaper circulation continues to decline. The top-selling paper in the 
country, USA Today , distributes only 2 million copies a day (half, no doubt, 
placed outside hotel room doors). Around the same number, with an average 
age of 71, watch The O’Reilly Factor nightly, with the number decreasing as 
the audience dies off. Everyone quietly concedes the news industry is dying. 
It’s the Internet’s fault, they all assure us. 

But what if it wasn’t? The other day I heard a news program that was so 
good that I wanted to listen to it again. And I’m not alone — all my friends 
have been talking about it as well. And while I don’t have exact numbers, it 
seems as popular as any one of those other news outlets. That show? The This 
American Life episode on The Global Pool of Money — a comprehensive 
explanation of the housing mess. 

There were three things about the show that made it stand out from the 
rest of the news pack: 

1. It believed in the intelligence of its audience. It didn’t try to pander 
with sex or disasters or quick cuts. It took a serious news story and 
investigated it thoroughly for a full hour, with only one break. And it 
didn’t try and dumb any of it down — it explained the whole thing, 
from top to bottom. 

2. It didn’t assume you already knew the subject. Most news stories on 
important topics are incomprehensible to the average person who 
doesn’t know much about their topic. Here’s a quote from a random 
news story about the housing crisis: “They said financial institutions 
have been unwilling to expose themselves to the mortgage market, 
and lenders are hesitant to lend to risky borrowers in a declining 
house price market after the subprime meltdown.” Unless you’ve 
been following the story (like the reporter, presumably) do you really 
know what that means? TAL instead assumed you knew nothing 
and explained every component and term so that you actually had a 



picture of what was going on. 

3. It was done in an entertaining and conversational tone. It didn’t treat 
the news as some important series of facts that had to be seriously 
conveyed to you. It treated it as something interesting they wanted 
to tell you about, a story that involved real people’s lives (who you 
got to hear from at length) and was full of genuinely interesting 
pieces. Look at that news quote above one more time. Can you really 
imagine someone sitting down and saying that with a straight face? 

At first these things may seem contradictory — how can you believe in the 
intelligence of your audience while assuming they don’t know anything? how 
can you be entertaining and yet still explain a subject? — but the more you 
think about them you see how well they fit together. Being intelligent doesn’t 
mean you’re knowledgeable; it means you’re curious. Which means you want 
to hear the whole story from beginning to end and which means you might 
actually find it entertaining. And being conversational prevents you from 
assuming the mask that lets you talk down to your audience while pretending 
they only need to hear the handful of new facts that you’re providing. 

In every other field, that kind of formality has been dropped. Even banks run 
advertisements these days about how their associates will be your friend. And 
yet the news chugs along with its arrogant formality, watching its audience 
get older and older, and wondering why its circulation is declining. 

Together, these three points seem like the recipe for a genuine news show: 
intelligent, comprehensive, and entertaining. And yet, I can’t think of a single 
thing that follows them. Surely in an era of desperation and experimentation, 
the wacky idea of actually respecting your audience has to be worth a try by 
someone. Anyone want to give it a shot? 

May 12, 2008 




People want to make the world a better place. But how? Barack Obama says 
I can change the direction of the country by voting for him. A1 Gore says 
I can solve the climate crisis with a letter to the editor. MoveOn says I can 
stop George W. Bush by signing their petition. Perhaps, but these requests 
ring hollow. How is writing a letter to my local paper going to stop the polar 
ice caps from melting? 

Most groups have a couple steps at the end (switch to alternative energy, 
stopping carbon from being emitted, preventing global warming) and a 
couple steps at the beginning (write your congressman and send a letter to 
the paper) but in between they seem to expect that some kind of miracle 
will happen. They’re missing the concrete steps in between, the actual way 
we get from here to there. 

In the nonprofit world, such a plan is called a Theory of Change. And 
the reason they’re so rare is because they’re dreadfully hard to come by. The 
world has no shortage of big problems, but it’s hard to think of ways we 
might realistically solve them. Instead, the same few things — vote, preach, 
march — get trotted out again and again. 

For over a year now, I’ve been looking for theories of change for politics. 
And I’ve found a few that I think just might work. But I can’t pull them off 
by myself. So here they are, in case someone out there wants to help. 


Here’s how you get elected to Congress today: First, you make friends with 
a bunch of wealthy people, being sure to agree with them on all the important 
issues. Then you take their money and hire a well-connected Washington, 
D.C. campaign manager. The campaign manager shows you how to ask for 
more money and then gives it to his partner, who makes some TV and radio 
ads and runs them in your district. They keep doing this until your money 
runs out and then, if you’re lucky, you get more votes than the other guy. 



Because of the netroots, it’s now possible to change the first part of this story. 
Instead of raising your money from conservative or centrist rich people, you 
can now raise money from progressive people over the Internet. So instead 
of candidates who all agree that telephone companies shouldn’t be punished 
for spying on Americans, you can have candidates who think every American 
should have free health care. 

Concretely, you’d ask people who want to do this to sign up to pay $X a 
month. Then you’d go around looking for candidates (or potential candidates) 
who genuinely believe in progressive principles. When you find them, you 
give them the money, and now they actually have a chance of getting elected. 

Bonus: Get more money by fiercely promoting how bad the incumbent is 
or how good the challenger is. 

This sort of thing has been done haphazardly and achieved some real 
successes. Donna Edwards, for example, is now a member of Congress. The 
idea here is to institutionalize it. 


The last plan changes the first part of the election process I mentioned. But 
you could also try changing the rest of it. Right now, if you want to run as 
a Democrat, your biggest source of funding will be the Democratic Party, 
especially the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).To 
get their money, the DCCC requires you hire one of their friends. Their friends 
are all corrupt hacks who run the same failed campaigns again and again. 

This is normally thought to be unavoidable because you can’t win without 
money and you can’t get money without the DCCC. What this misses is 
that you don’t need as much money if you’re running a radically innovative 

Instead of raising money to run ads, do a PR stunt that will get lots of free 
media and word-of-mouth attention. Center your campaign around a clear 
proposal that most of the public will support but no other politician would 
dare touch. Be forceful and refuse to back down in the face of attacks from 
the press or your opponent. And, above all, always make it clear to people 



that you’re an average person, not an average politician. No boring speeches, 
no political buzzwords, no meaningless cliches. 

It’s never been seriously tried outside of the movies, but I expect that the 
effect would be electrifying. The media would cover your every entertaining 
move and money would flow in from around the Internet. The 60% that 
doesn’t vote in midterms would start to reconsider. Hell, Ron Paul attempted 
half this strategy while being completely nuts and he still received enough 
money and volunteers to win five House seats. 

If you can actually win an election this way, you’ll be able to get dozens more 
to follow your lead the next time around. Pretty soon, it’ll be a movement. 


It’s not just about the President and it’s not just about Congress. (It’s also not 
just about the US, but that’s what we’re focusing on today.) Local elections 
also have an impact, if only the people who win them often go on to even 
bigger positions. (Who in Wassila, Alaska thought they might be picking a 
future president?) 

Most local races don’t get a lot of attention and most people don’t do much 
research on them. Which makes them much easier to influence that bigger 
races. Imagine a site where you gave it your email address and zip code and 
every time there was a local election, it’d send you the progressive candidates 
to vote for. You could print it out and take it to the polls and feel much better 
about your pick for “register of probate”. 

In San Francisco, the local papers issue endorsements on all the races and 
each of the candidates they endorse chip in some money to send a postcard 
with the whole endorsement list to every voter. This group could do the same 
thing. It could also ask folks to chip in a couple bucks to help pay for mailing 
post cards to their neighbors. (Or they could print some out at home.) 


Supposedly, corporations aren’t actually controlled by their CEOs. The 
CEOs are instead hired by the shareholders, to run the business that the 



shareholders actually own. A lot of these shares are held by people who aren’t 
big fans of business as usual. If they got together they could use their shares 
to vote for reform. 

Now voting on shares is complicated enough that most people don’t bother, 
but increasingly votes are being moved onto the Internet. It’s possible for an 
aspiring organization to build some software that could automatically vote 
for people if they wanted. So you could imagine, for example, a couple million 
MoveOn members letting a new progressive group vote their shares for them, 
allowing progressives to apply some real pressure to misbehaving corporations. 

Combined with legal changes that are being considered that would further 
make corporate voting more fair, this is something that could make a real 


I’ve written about this before (see article “How to Fix the News”). The basic 
idea is simple: There’s lots of fascinating stuff going on in the world. And yet, 
to become news, all the background and color is drained out of it. Worse, to 
be on TV, a story has to be so dumbed down that you feel stupid for watching 
it. And to be in the paper, a story has to have so little background that only 
an expert could understand it. A news show that covered interesting stories 
in a way that made them genuinely interesting would be quite popular and 
could have a tremendous impact. 


I’ll try to remember to update this page as I learn more. Post your own ideas 
in the comments. (Remember: “Require all politicians to wear a lie detector” 
is not a theory of change — we’re looking for ways to get there.) 

September to, 2008 





The following is a non-technical summary of Brad DeLong’s May 2008 paper 
“ Capital and Its Complements ” 1 . 

Adam Smith explained that in all countries with “security of property and 
tolerable administration of justice” citizens would spend all their money 
(capital), either on consumption or investment, causing the country’s economy 
to grow. After some contention, later economic studies tended to bare this out: 
a shortage of capital wasn’t always the bottleneck, but when it was, removing 
it could lead to extraordinarily rapid growth. 

The problem for poor countries is that, because of high mortality rates 
(which require more children to have some survive) and low educational levels 
(which mean those children can find productive employment quickly), they 
have high population growth and thus low capital-to-labor ratios. Worse, 
trade allows you to spend your money buying manufactured goods from 
overseas, for which you have only your very cheap labor to provide in return. 
The result is that it requires an enormous amount of domestic investment to 
improve capital-to-labor ratios. 

And so rich country economists made “the neoliberal bet” on behalf of poor 
countries: they hoped that loosening restrictions on international capital flows 
would send capital rushing in to poor countries and build their economies, 
the same way that Great Britain’s massive investment in a young United 
States (in 1913 Britain’s foreign assets equaled 60% of its domestic capital 
stock) built up that country. 

But what ended up happening was exactly the opposite. Yes, NAFTA led 
US companies to invest the $20 to $30 billion a year on manufacturing 
in Mexico that its boosters predicted, but that investment was more than 
outweighed by the $30 to $40 billion a year fleeing the country from Mexico’s 
wealthy wanting to invest it in the United States. Why? In part because the 
US was more politically stable, and thus a safer investment climate. And in 
part because the US treats its own workers so poorly — with productivity 



rising 35% since 2000 while real wages remain flat — it provides an excellent 
investment opportunity. 

But meanwhile, all this investment in the US was dwarfed by the Chinese 
acquisition of our debt (and thus the political risk it represents). China needed 
to do this, since US purchase of their exports is the only thing funding the 
manufacturing-led industrialization of a massive portion of their economy; 
there would be massive dislocation if that funding dried up. 

“Recognition of these facts came slowly.” First, Larry Summers said it was 
our unsustainable current account deficit. (That was the 1990s; today that 
deficit is four times as large.) Later, economists thought it must have been 
our large budget deficits. Then they began thinking it was the run-up in 
housing prices. But that, it is now clear to most economists, was the result of 
a bubble. And yet the flow of capital to the US continues. But, perhaps even 
more frighteningly, it could stop at any moment. 

June 30, 2008 

1 . http: / /www. 




There’s one bit of irrationality that seems like it ought to be in behavioral 
economics introduction but mysteriously isn’t. For lack of a better term, let’s 
call it the percentage fallacy. The idea is simple: 

One day I find I need a blender. I see a particularly nice one at the store 
for $40, so I purchase it and head home. But on the way home, I see the 
exact same blender on sale at a different store for $20. Now I feel ripped 
off, so I drive back to the first store, return the blender, drive back to the 
second store, and buy it for $20. 

The next day I find I need a laptop. I see a particularly nice one at the 
store for $2500, so I purchase it and head home. But on the way home, 

I see the exact same laptop for $2480. “Pff, well, it’s only $20,” I say, and 
continue home with the original laptop. 

I’m sure all of you have done something similar — maybe the issue wasn’t 
having to return something, but spending more time looking for a cheaper 
model, or fiddling with coupons and rebates, or buying something of inferior 
quality. But the basic point is consistent: we’ll do things to save 50% that 
we’d never do to save 1%. 

At first this almost seems rational — of course we’re going to do more to 
save more money! But you aren’t saving more money. With both the blender 
and the laptop, you have the chance to save $20. Either way, you’re going 
to have another twenty in your pocket, which you can spend on exactly the 
same things later on. Yet we behave differently depending on whether we 
got that twenty by skimping on a small purchase or skimping on a big one. 
Rationally, if driving back to the store isn’t worth $20 when you’re buying a 
laptop, it isn’t worth $20 when you’re buying a blender. 

On the other hand, don’t those small savings tend to add up after a while? 
If you start blowing $20 every time you buy a trinket, you’re soon going to 
be out of disposable income. Meanwhile, spending several thousand dollars 



is much rarer, so isn’t it OK to slack off a bit on such occasions? 

If we work to save 50% on everything, big or small, that’s the equivalent 
of saving 50% of our money altogether. Whereas if we only try to save fixed 
amounts on every purchase, how much we save is dependent on how many 
things we buy. 

So which is the real irrationality? I’m not entirely sure of the answer. 

July 21, 2008 





In a famous experiment, some people are asked to choose between $100 
today or $120 tomorrow. Many choose the first. Meanwhile, some people 
are asked to choose between $100 sixty days from now or $120 sixty-one 
days from now. Almost everyone choose the laster. The puzzle is this: why 
are people willing to sacrifice $20 to avoid waiting a day right now but not 
in the future? 

The standard explanation is hyperbolic discounting: humans tend to weigh 
immediate effects much more strongly than distant ones. But I think the 
actual psychological effect at work here is just the percentage fallacy. If I ask 
for the money now, I may have to wait 60 seconds. But if I get it tomorrow I 
have to wait 143900%more. By contrast, waiting 61 days is only 1.6% worse 
than waiting 6 days. Why not wait an extra 2% when you get 16% more 
money for it? 

Has anyone done a test confirming the percentage fallacy? A good test 
would be to show people treat the $100 vs. $120 tradeoff as equivalent to 
the $1000 to $1200 tradeoff. 

October 7, 2010 




A decade from now, when the seas begin to rise and the earth begins to boil, 
who will get blamed? Surely not George W. Bush, who spent 8 crucial years 
denying the problem, slowing the movement of other countries, and giving 
India and China an excuse for delay. 

As evidence, look at what happen to Jimmy Carter. He called for a national 
investment in alternative energy so that gas-guzzling cars would be a thing 
of the past. Reagan scuttled all that and today as oil prices rise we have very 
little in the way of alternatives ready. But the sainted Reagan is never blamed. 

September 18, 2008 




My usual attitude is one of skepticism toward politicians. They routinely 
disappoint. But, for a moment, let’s take the opposite scenario. What’s the 
most that we could hope for? 

Barack Obama grew up middle class and black. Obviously intelligent, he 
left school knowing he wanted to make a difference, but unsure how. Inspired 
by the civil rights movement and SNCC, he joined various progressive 
organizations like NYPIRG and worked as a community organizer. 

He then entered law school and graduated highly, but instead of taking a 
clerkship went back to Chicago to write a book about race relations and, later, 
run a voter registration drive. He taught Constitutional Law and joined the 
board of various progressive foundations. He turned his sights toward politics, 
where he’s spent the last ten years, representing largely progressive districts. 

Throughout his political career, he has been criticized for being overly 
cautious and moderate. But he’s been taken unusual pains to reach out to left- 
wing journals (including fairly obscure ones) who have leveled such criticisms, 
talked to them personally, and tried to defend himself. 

In his presidential campaign, he’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much 
of it coming from small-dollar donors. He’s built a grassroots organization 
never seen before in this country, with millions of well-coordinated members. 
Through an incredibly well-executed campaign and a series of eloquent 
speeches, he seems poised to take the presidency with both houses of Congress, 
a solid majority, and a strong mandate. 

This is unique. He hasn’t spent enough time in politics to get chewed up by 
the system. He hasn’t become dependent on a handful of big-money donors. 
He comes from a background of progressive politics. And he has an army of 
cash and people behind him. 

Let’s say he wanted to reform health care, an issue towards the top of 



Americans’ minds and a task that’s necessary to balance the budget and get 
real wages rising again. The majority of the country supports a single-payer 
program, like in every other industrialized nation, but because of the vast 
influence of money in politics, it’s often been considered politically impossible 
to achieve. 

But Obama could pull it off. With his eloquence, he could easily sell the 
plan to the country. The Democratic majority in both houses would get him 
most of the votes he needed. With his fundraising and volunteer network, 
he could threaten to have primary challengers replace any Congresspeople 
who disagree. (Obama personally has raised around $700M. The average 
Congressional campaign costs less than SIM.) With his tactical shrewdness, 
he could outwit industry lobbying groups. 

Across a wide variety of such issues, it’s possible to imagine a President 
Obama getting such things done. He has sufficient skill, background, and 
power to pull it off. It’s hard to imagine a similar situation in history. (FDR, 
who Obama is often compared to, came from a very upper-class background 
and was strongly pulled by the far-left inspired by the Depression.) 

Do I think it will happen? No. The far- right spent these final days shrieking 
that Obama is a closet socialist who will take this country into a new era 
of single-payer health care, strong financial regulation, revitalized unions, 
progressive taxation, a green economy, and universal voting rights. I wish it 
were so. 

Instead, Obama has proposed the most moderate and cautious plan of all 
Democratic candidates, repeatedly refused to make ideological challenges 
out of fear of alienating voters, caved on even obvious questions like illegal 
wiretapping, surrounded himself with old centrist party hacks, and spent 
most of his campaign arguing for vague generalities like “change” rather 
than specific policy proposals. So all signs point to Obama being another 
cautious moderate. 

But the striking thing is that none of these are dispositive. It’s possible to 
imagine that, like W, Obama has run a quiet campaign focused on building 
an electoral majority which he plans to use to push through the policies he 
truly favors. It’s implausible (the hardest thing to explain away is the FISA 



vote; even my most hopeful side can’t think of any decent explanation for 
that) but it is possible. And it will only be more likely if we fight for it. 

If we don’t it seems Obama’s most likely path is to become what the left’s 
pundits call “a more competent steward of empire” — do a bunch of reasonable, 
sensible things that will probably have quite positive effects on the lives of 
most Americans, while leaving all the fundamentals untouched. But while 
that would be a welcome respite from the past eight years, let’s not squander 
this rare opportunity for something more. 

October 31, 2008 





People are trying to lie to you. Or maybe they just don’t know what they’re 
talking about. Either way, you shouldn’t listen to them. But how can you tell? 
Here’s a guidebook of key phrases that indicate someone doesn’t know what 
they’re talking about when they talk about the economy: 

Creates/destroys jobs. You often hear men of business saying that their 
company “created” 2000 new jobs. And in some sense that may be true, but 
it’s probably less exciting if it turned out that they did it by destroying 2000 
jobs somewhere else. 

The same is true for economic policy in general; it will typically create jobs 
in one place, but only at the expense of losing them somewhere else. That’s 
because the number of jobs (i.e. the unemployment rate) isn’t just a free- 
floating fact of life; it’s specifically controlled by the Federal Reserve. 

The Federal Reserve is a cadre of bankers and economists that, among other 
things, meets regularly to decide interest rates. When there are too few jobs, 
they lower interest rates, making it easier for people to borrow money and 
start new companies, hiring new people and creating jobs. (The current crisis 
is the rare exception — interest rates are at zero and there still aren’t enough 
jobs. Thus the stimulus package.) When there are too many jobs, they raise 
interest rates, making it harder for businesses to start and expand, and cutting 
back on jobs. 

Wait, too many jobs? The Federal Reserve worries that if unemployment 
gets too low, we’ll hit a cycle of accelerating inflation where prices spiral up 
and up. Critics argue that they actually don’t like low unemployment because 
then businesses have to compete for employees, which means they have to 
pay more and give out nicer benefits. So, critics argue, they try to leave some 
unemployment, so that employees are competing and can be pushed into 
taking lower wages. 

If you really care about how many jobs there are — and obviously you 



should — then you shouldn’t worry about particular policies or people, whose 
effects either won’t matter or will be counteracted by the Fed. You should 
worry about the Fed and who controls it. 

Helps/hurts competitiveness. Let’s face facts: America isn’t competing 
with anyone. Remember competition? You sell a widget for $5; I come along 
and sell it for $4; then you have to either lower your price or lose all your 
customers to me and go bankrupt. But America isn’t going to go bankrupt. 
Countries don’t really do that sort of thing. 

Instead, what matters for how well a country is doing is (roughly speaking) its 
productivity, i.e. how much stuff it makes per person-hour of work. Sometimes 
you can increase this productivity by working with other countries — by, for 
example, trading some steel for some coffee. But this is just a way to up your 
own country’s productivity; it has nothing to do with competition. 

The competitiveness bogeyman is often trotted out when someone is trying 
to get you to do something you don’t want. “Oh, sure,” they say, “you may 
not want to do it, but the Chinese are and they’re going to eat your lunch.” 
It just isn’t so. Nothing will stop us from chugging along, eating our lunch 
just fine; even if the Chinese are eating two lunches. 

Sadly, a lot of “economic commentators” don’t know what they’re talking 
about, so you see these phrases everywhere. Now that you know they’re bogus, 
it should save you a lot of time. 

January 28, 2009 




Remember when President Bush tried to put more arsenic in our drinking 
water? Lots of people got outraged — it seemed like a classic example of a 
deregulator-in-chief helping his corporate friends at our expense. Not Cass 
Sunstein, a prominent (and nominally-liberal) law professor. 

Sunstein, working for and with right-wing deregulatory think tanks, 
published a piece called “The Arithmetic of Arsenic”, arguing that everyone 
needs to stop being so emotional about these things. We can’t decide whether 
arsenic should be in our water based on fuzzy-wuzzy arguments about not 
killing people. No, we need to be hard-headed realists and decide exactly how 
much a human life is worth and whether filtering arsenic is worth the cost. 
In short, we have to do cost-benefit analysis. 

As fellow law prof Tom McGarity pointed out, Sunstein continued to hold 
this view despite the fact that Sunstein’s own research into the subject showed 
that there was so much uncertainty around the issue that just using different 
previously-published estimates could result in whatever conclusion you like. 
And there was no obvious way to decide which estimate to trust. 

All of this would be just another story in the annals of out-of-touch 
intellectuals — a law professor who gets off on killing people to save money, 
actual facts be damned — except for one frightening fact: Barack Obama 
just put this law professor in charge of cost-benefit analysis for the whole 

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) was set up by 
Ronald Reagan to allow him veto power over any federal regulation. If the 
EPA wanted to stop companies from poisoning fish, if the DOJ wanted to 
stop businesses from discriminating, if OSHA wanted to protect miners’ 
lungs, OIRA could intervene and double-check their cost-benefit analysis. 
They could rejigger the numbers to make it so that the regulation got killed 
or if they failed at that they could just demand more and more research from 
the agency, delaying the regulation it was finally abandoned. 



OIRA was one of Reagan’s most powerful tools for keeping the Federal 
Government from doing its job. And now someone who’s a strong fan of its 
mission has been put in charge. It’s a scary thought, especially as you’re going 
to get a glass of drinking water. 

January 16, 2009 




On Capitol Hill sit many powerful people — Congressmen, Senators, 
Justices — but also numerous others who do the daily work of keeping 
government running. And, like anyone with such a weighty responsibility, they 
sometimes want a break: a chance to see a movie or eat out with their spouse. 

Kids always make these things difficult, so in the late 1950s someone thought 
of starting a Capitol Hill Babysitting Coop. The idea was simple: a bunch of 
families would get together and dole out scrip — little fake money — amongst 
themselves. Anytime you wanted to go out, you could just hire another family 
in the coop to watch your kids: one piece of scrip per hour. Later, of course, 
youd earn the money back by watching someone else’s kids. 

It was a brilliant system and much beloved, until sometime in the 1970s. 
See, when people left the babysitting coop, they got to keep the balance of 
their scrip. And so, over the years, the amount of scrip in circulation fell. Soon 
scrip was in short supply and people begun hoarding theirs for fear of losing 
it forever. There were few opportunities to babysit (and thus earn scrip) so 
people didn’t want to lose the scrip they had by paying it to a sitter. Which, 
of course, meant even fewer babysitting opportunities, making more people 
want to hoard their scrip, and on and on in a downward spiral. 

Since the coop consisted largely of lawmakers and lawyers, they attempted a 
legislative solution to the crisis, requiring everyone go out at least once every 
six months. The proposal just made things worse. Eventually, someone tried 
the idea of handing out more scrip to everyone, and soon, the coop’s delicate 
balance was restored. 

In the 2000s, house prices started rising and everyone started sinking their 
money into them. Average people would buy houses and mortgage them, 
banks would buy mortgages, investors would buy mortgage derivatives from 
banks, and so on. Pundits published books with titles like Why the Real Estate 
Boom Will Not Bust and many people just assumed housing prices would go up 
forever. At the peak of it, we had roughly $80 trillion in global financial assets. 



Of course, it was clear to anyone who looked closely that this couldn’t go 
on forever — and that when it stopped, it would bring a lot down with it. 
And, sure enough, today housing prices are almost back to their usual level 
and we now have only $60 trillion. 

Just like people taking scrip out of the babysitting coop, an enormous amount 
of money has been taken out of the economy. So naturally people want to 
hold on to what’s left. So they don’t spend their money, which means there’s 
less employment opportunities, which means more people want to hold on 
to their money, and on and on in a downward spiral. 

Normally when this happens, as in a recession, the government has an 
easy solution: lower interest rates. What happens is the country’s leading 
bankers meet at the Federal Reserve and vote to lower interest rates. Let’s 
say they decide to lower them (as they’ve done a lot lately). Then the Federal 
Reserve Bank in New York starts buying up Treasury Bills (government 
IOUs) for cash, injecting money into the economy. This allows banks to lend 
out more money, lowering the interest rate at which money is lent out, and 
thus encouraging people to start spending again. (Later, when the economy 
is doing well, they’ll raise the rates again, pulling money out and making sure 
things don’t get out of hand.) 

But this isn’t simply a recession. The Fed’s lowered the interest rate to 
zero — zero! they’re giving money away — and unemployment just keeps rising. 
Losing a quarter of global financial assets hurts. But now the Fed has a problem: 
it can’t lower the interest rate anymore. Interest rates don’t go any lower than zero. 

Which means, as J. M. Keynes foresaw back during the first Great Depression, 
we need another way of getting money into the economy. This isn’t rocket 
science — Keynes suggested stuffing bills into bottles and burying them down 
mineshafts; Milton Friedman once proposed tossing cash out of helicopters. 
But as long as the government is spending money, we might as well spend it 
on something useful. And thus, fiscal stimulus. 

We spend the money to build roads and trains and high-speed Internet 
connections. We give away health care and hand out welfare checks and 
mail people tax rebates. We do whatever it takes to get more money into the 
economy. Which people then turn around and spend on all the things they 



normally start spending money on and the engine of capitalism once again 
start to turn. 

Keynes’ genius came in seeing that the Depression wasn’t a moral problem. 
We’re not being punished for our exuberance or our stinginess, just as the 
folks on Capitol Hill weren’t at fault for not wanting to go out. In both cases, 
the problem wasn’t legislative, but merely technical: there just wasn’t enough 
money to go around. And the technical problem has a technical solution: 
print more money. 

The moralists insist it’s irresponsible for us to just print more money. After 
all, they say, debt got us into this mess; is more debt really going to get us 
out? This is what they told FDR, causing him to hit the break on a recovery 
that was pulling us out of the Great Depression. This is what they told 
Japan, ending their recovery and plunging the country into a “lost decade” 
of unemployment. 

It’s not irresponsible to spend money; it’s irresponsible not to. Factories 
are lying idle, people are sitting at home unemployed, and our economy is 
slowing. We can spend money to make use of it all, or we can just continue 
downward spiral. The choice is ours. 

Further reading: 

• Sweeney and Sweeney, “Monetary Theory and the Great Capitol Hill Baby 
Sitting Co-op Crisis [PDF] 

• DeLong, “ The Financial Crisis of 2007-2009: Understanding Its Causes, 
Consequences — and Its Possible Cures 2 " [scribd] 

• Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics 3 

• Baker, Why Stimulus Wont Increase the Debt* 

February 4, 2009 

1 . http: //cda. morris 

2 . http: / /www. 

3 . http: / /www. amazon. com/Return-Depression-Economics-Crisis-2008/ 

4 . http : / /www . prospect . org / csnc/blogs /beat_the_press_ 
confusion o#111235 




Who Really Rules?, by G. William Domhoff, is one of my very favorite 
books. But explaining why will take some background. In the 1950s and 60s 
researchers were looking at what they called the “power structure” in American 
cities — the people who really pulled the strings and called the shots. Foremost 
among them was Floyd Hunter, whose study of Atlanta practically invented 
the field. Naturally the whole notion that anyone was pulling the shots behind 
the scenes in America offended the deans of mainstream liberal political 
science and so their leader, Robert A. Dahl, set out to defend democracy’s 
good name. 

He argued that one could only figure out who was in charge by doing careful 
case studies — looking at controversial decisions and seeing who was involved 
in making them — that and only that could tell you where true power lay. 
And, in his most famous work, Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an 
American City he aimed to do just such a case study in his hometown of New 
Haven, where his employer, Yale University, resides. 

Dahl proposed a theory called pluralism in which no small elect is in charge 
but power is instead shared across conflicting groups, each marshaling its own 
resources on the issues it feels strongly about. Democracy, although perhaps 
in a more sophisticated form, is vindicated, and the ridiculous notions of a 
shadowy elite disproven. As Dahl writes: 

It is all the more improbable, then, that a secret cabal of Notables 
dominates the public life of New Haven through means so clandestine 
that not one of the fifty prominent citizens interviewed in the courts 
of this study — citizens who had participated extensively in various 
decisions — hinted at the existence of such a cabal; so clandestine, 
indeed, that no clues turned up in several years of investigation led to the 
door of such a group. (185) 

Of course that wasn’t quite true. Domhoff was skeptical of Dahl’s results 
and decided to request access to his source material and reresearch the matter 



for himself. In going through Dahl’s interview notes, Domhoff found these 
choice comments: 

First Informant said that [contacting the First National Bank] 
was essential, that they had to deal with what he called the “power 
structure” if they wanted to accomplish anything. First Informant kept 
emphasizing the “power structure.” 

According to Second Informant, nothing gets done without the First 
National Bank saying so. According to him, it is “at the top of the power 
structure.” ... I asked him why . . . [and he] said, “Just look at who’s on 
its board of directors.” . . . He said, “The bank’s support is necessary for 
anything that is done in this town including redevelopment.” (Sounds 
like a quote from Hunter.) 

But, of course, Dahl wanted to disprove Hunter, not sound like him, so 
he never followed up on these leads. But Domhoff does. In the intellectual 
battle over which version of how cities work is more accurate, he scores a 
decisive victory over Dahl. He not only takes Dahl’s method, he also takes 
Dahl’s town and indeed his specific case study and shows how the decisions 
were made by a sinister cabal after all. 

And his results are much more convincing. Dahl, after all, was trying to prove 
a negative: that there wasn't anyone pulling the strings. Whereas Domhoff 
can simply point out who was. Dahl’s central case study is the question of 
New Haven urban renewal. A bold Democratic mayor, he claims, came into 
office and proposed a plan, dragging local businessmen and Federal officials 
along with him to get it done. 

Nonsense, says Domhoff. The plan for urban renewal was drafted by the local 
chamber of commerce years before. And when the new mayor got elected, 
the Chamber of Commerce invited him to lunch and explained the whole 
thing. They even told the mayor who to hire to carry the plan out and, in the 
end, got exactly what they’d wanted all along. 

But Domhoff doesn’t simply prove Dahl wrong. He gives an engrossing 
case study of how powerful businessmen get things like this done, based on 
extensive archival research and contemporaneous notes. And he tells an entire 



alternative history of American urban renewal, showing how big business 
turned a plan to build housing for the poor into an excuse to expel them to 
make room for upscale businesses. 

The result is a tour de force', a complete demolition of one of the most 
influential books of political science, an engrossing case study of how power 
really operates, and an example of how to do research into the people who, 
after all, really rule. 

March 23, 2009 




Sometimes the government will set up a new regulatory agency, like a Mine 
Safety and Health Administration or something to keep watch on the mining 
industry. And off they go, investigating the mining industry to make sure 
they’re being safe. 

Only something funny happens. It turns out all the people they talk to all 
day are mining industry officials. And whenever they hold meetings to ask 
for advice, the only people who show up are mining industry officials. When 
they make proposals and ask for public comment, all the comments are from 
mining industry officials. And pretty soon, they start thinking like mining 
industry officials. 

Academics call this regulatory capture — an office was put in place to 
regulate an industry, but it ended up just being a tool of the industry. 

But what’s striking is that the problem isn’t just limited to regulation; the 
same thing happens to journalists as well. Call it journalistic capture. And 
there are few examples of it more obvious than that of CNBC. 

CNBC, a channel supposed to cover economic news, basically acts as a full- 
time cheerleader for the financial industry. When the market was booming, 
this wasn’t so noticeable. Whole swaths of the country started daytrading and 
checking the CNBC ticker regularly to feed their buy-sell trigger fingers. 

But now that the market’s gone belly-up, it all seems a whole lot less 
appealing. Which is what Jon Stewart has been getting at with his critiques 
of the network. 

Well, it’s less satisfying to complain when you can actually do something 
about it, so some friends and I have started a new campaign: Fix CNBC! 
As HuffiPo reported 1 , we ’re demanding CNBC commit to holding Wall 
Street accountable, starting with hiring someone who was right about the 
economic crisis. 



We’d really love for you to sign our open letter. 

March 16, 2009 

1 . 




Traditional left-wing thought treats elections as epiphenomenal: build a 
strong enough social movement and politicians will be forced to do what 
you want. In this view, it doesn’t really matter who gets elected since they’re 
ultimately all subject to the same structural forces. Working to get someone 
“good” elected is really just a waste of time, since they’ll turn out to be as bad 
as all the others once they get into office. 

(Think Noam Chomsky’s comments about the unimportance of electoral 
politics, or the Alinskyite theory that one should try to cultivate an attitude 
of “fear and loathing” among politicians.) 

There’s clearly a great deal of truth to this — structural forces are ultimately 
very powerful. But I think it misses a great deal as well. This model assumes 
politicians are this separate class of rational actors who respond purely to 
electoral incentives; if your grassroots movement gets them votes, they’ll help 
you out, but they’re just as happy to sell you out to a higher bidder. 

But what if the politicians involved are actually activists themselves? What 
if the choice isn’t between joining a electoral campaign and joining an issue 
campaign, but between starting a electoral campaign and starting an issue 
campaign? Here I think the calculus changes wildly. 

For one thing, just at the campaign level, electoral campaigns have a lot of 
advantage over issue campaigns. They fit into a designated “news hole” so it’s 
easier for the media to cover them, they have clear deadlines which spur people 
to action, and there’s a clear existing model for how to do them (including 
fundraising, scheduling, volunteer management, etc.). 

Furthermore, if you actually win, you can now continue the campaign from 
a much stronger institutional base: you’ll have a full-time salaried staff, your 
pronouncements will be de facto news, and there will be strong social pressure 
preventing the whole thing from fizzling out as people decide to do other 
things with their lives. 



Of course, there’s also the positive impact you can make as an officeholder. 
Obviously you’ll be able to help institutionalize your goals by passing laws and 
regulations you support (just as you would try to push as an outsider), but you’ll 
also be able to promote things in innumerable smaller ways, just by meeting 
with other politicians and using the influence of your office. Take this story 
from MattTaibbi about Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont: 

[He] kept coming back to a story about his very first meeting with the 
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. At the meeting, 
the subject of the Head Start program had come up. Ted Kennedy, who 
runs the committee, had proposed a modest increase. Sanders wanted 
more — so he went and had a word with Kennedy after the meeting. 

“The end result is that we got a 6 percent increase, instead of a 4 
percent increase,” he said. “Over a three-year period, that’s five hundred 
million dollars more. What I’m finding out is it’s just a different world. 
Not saying it’s better, it’s just different. If you want something you just 
go talk to someone in the hall. [...]” 

He tried to sound like it was a good thing, and it might very well have 
been, in terms of getting more money for a worthy-enough program. But 
the subtext of this story was Sanders expressing amazement that he could 
get $500 million just by talking to someone. As any human being would, 
he looked blown away by the reality of his situation. 

(The Great Derangement, 127) 

Obviously there are few offices as powerful as United States Senator, but 
every job has opportunities for simple victories like these, if at a much smaller 
scale. Sure, outside groups can always try to push officials to do things like 
this, but if you actually are the elected official you can just do them. (Plus, 
how often do outside groups know about these simple things?) 

The late Senator Paul Wellstone, who came to electoral politics from 
grassroots organizing himself, argued that political change had three parts: 
the intellectual work of discovering what’s wrong and how to fix it (i.e. policy 
development), the organizing work of mobilizing citizens into activist groups, 
and the electoral work of running for office and getting elected. And it seems 
that the left seems to neglect the last of these. 



For a young leftist, a career in academia or the think tanks is an easy choice, 
while those who are bolder go into full-time activism. But running for office 
never seems like a viable option. (When people ask Noam Chomsky how 
they can fix things, he never says they should run for office.) (We’ll ignore 
for a moment the delusion the left seems to have that they should run for 
office as a third-party in a two-party system.) The result is a severe deficit of 
genuine leftist candidates. Which of course feeds their sense that politicians 
are just going to sell you out. 

Leftists need to think more about running for office. Not as an alternative 
to advocacy or activism, but as an extension of it. Campaigns are an incredible 
opportunity to explain and fight for the issues you believe in, while elected 
offices are a great opportunity to achieve them. That’s how the left took Santa 
Cruz, probably the only real city in the country with a leftist government, 
and that’s how they’ll take the country. 

March 9, 2009 

1 . http : / / sociology . ucsc . edu/whorulesamerica/santacruz / progressive_ 




Imagine you’ve kidnapped the President of the United States. You record 
her making a statement that, if published, will strengthen the international 
forces of evil. The military is about to blow up the building you’re in, so 
you have to get the video out electronically, but they’re monitoring your 
communications and will be able to put enormous pressure on anyone who 
receives a copy from you. 

Here’s the question: in the few minutes you have before the building is 
reduced to rubble, where do you upload the video to maximize the chance 
that it will get published? 

Alright, so your first inclination is to upload it to your servers, but that’s 
easy — they just seize your servers. 

So you upload it to YouTube and have Google copy it to all of their servers. 
But then they just call Google and have them delete it. 

Obviously if you had it on the front page of a popular website, that would 
solve things, but the front pages of popular websites are pretty closely guarded. 

You could try mailing it to WikiLeaks, but although WikiLeaks is pretty 
openminded, they may not actually want to strengthen the international 
forces of evil. The same goes for any other particular free speech activist you 
could name — dst, Cryptome, etc. 

Your best bet is probably to have a smart guy on the outside who keeps 
uploading it various places from behind Tor as older copies get deleted. But 
how many people have smart guys on the outside? 

You could try spamming it to a bunch of blogs, wikis, and other sites (or 
even by email or IM for that matter), but that’ll take too long — you only 
have a couple of minutes and probably a flaky connection to boot. There’s no 
way you can hit very many servers. 



You could publish it on a Tor hidden service, but then theyd probably just 
DOS the whole Tor network. 

Freenet seems too small and unreliable. Other P2P systems don’t even make 
copies except on request. 

Usenet seems like it should be a promising option, but does anyone use 
Usenet anymore? 

More promising options seem like emailing it to some kind of large mailing 
list. But which list has the most insane free speech activists? (cypherpunks? 
lkml?) And will it mail out all those copies before the Feds get it unplugged? 

How else do you get stuff onto lots of people’s machines? Web, Usenet, 
email, IM, HTTP access logs, DNS caches. 

Can you think of anything better? 

The current winner is Andy Baio with: 

Upload it to Sharebee (which then sends it out to Megaupload, Rapidshare 
and a bunch of other anonymous hosting sites) and post the link to 4chan. 
They’re big on evil over there. 

March 4, 2009 




Journalists get mad at bloggers: “Without real reporting, they’d have nothing 
to comment on!” Bloggers get mad at journalists: “There’s a reason nobody 
reads newspapers anymore. They’re dry and dull and wrong.” But the gap 
is shrinking: bloggers are doing more real reporting, journalists are getting 
more humanized (with all the digressions, opinions, and biases that entails). 

So what if you paired an investigative reporter with a blogger? Reporters 
didn’t used to write their own stories. (Why would a good investigator be a 
good writer?) The reporter would be out in the field, knocking on doors and 
taking notes, which they’d hand to a writer at a desk, who would turn them 
into a coherent, vivid story. (Newsweek still operates this way.) 

Replace the writer with a blogger. They’d post the story as it unfolded, 
capturing the excitement of discovery: the big breaks, the wrong turns, the 
moment when it all comes together. Like any talented blogger, they’d keep 
people coming back: What happens next ? I want to know more! They’d keep 
up a conversation with readers and other bloggers, sharing new leads with 
the reporter. It’d be a powerful duo. 

But blogging isn’t everything. You also want to recap the story so far: for 
those just tuning in, here are the characters, here’s what’s happened, here’s 
why it’s important. Keep a summary article alongside the blog and update 
it in tandem. It would lay out the whole story in one place, with links to 
particular posts or source documents for more information. That way everyone 
can always get an overview of the bigger picture — including the reporters. 

You’ll also want a tech person around to help out. Many stories involve 
databases; you need someone to work with the reporter to parse and process 
the data, then work with the blogger to put the results online. And there are 
plenty of other times where a small program or some tech knowledge comes 
in handy. 

And you’ll need a lawyer on staff. Getting information isn’t easy. You’ll need 



someone who can file FOIA lawsuits and respond to legal threats. Maybe you 
can even file lawsuits against corporate malefactors and obtain documents in 
discovery. Then work with pro bono lawyers or public interest law firms to 
win the lawsuit in its own right. 

Lawsuits are needed because modern investigations can’t stop at publication. 
If there was an era when a front page Times story could stop a scandal, that 
era is over. Ending abuses requires action. This makes traditional journalists 
uncomfortable. They see their job as reporting the facts, not changing them. 

We may always need the detached journalist interested only in The Truth, but 
there’s room for more. Just as journalism needs to become more humanized, it 
needs to become more activist. Journalists uncover outrageous things, which 
gets people outraged, but they seem to think channeling that outrage into 
something productive is someone else’s responsibility. 

Instead, a good investigative team needs a political organizer. They can build 
an email list of people who get outraged by their reporting and use it, along 
with blogs and the lists of other political groups, to put pressure on the bad 
guys, fundraise for further journalism, and collect a team of volunteers. The 
volunteers can help with aspects of the reporting — a modern investigation 
can get much further by crowdsourcing certain tricky aspects and depending 
on talented volunteers for particular tasks. A good political organizer knows 
how to get and manage volunteers. 

But to make your organizing maximally effective, you’ll need (gasp!) a 
lobbyist. They’ll meet with representatives to encourage them to hold hearings 
based on stories you’re working on, where they can subpoena documents and 
testimony. They’ll ask representatives to introduce bills to address the abuses 
you’ve uncovered and work with them on legislative strategy to get those bills 
passed. And they’ll team up with the political organizer to get constituents 
writing to their representatives in favor of these bills. 

The only way to get good at something is deliberate practice: trying various 
things and seeing how they work. But when it comes to making change, that’s 
very hard to do. Change requires so many people and takes so long that it’s 
almost impossible to say for sure that your doing X helped accomplish Y. 
Which means that it becomes very easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re 



more effective than you are. 

But if you have one team — some reporters, a blogger/writer, a techie, a 
lawyer, an organizer, and a lobbyist — together, they form an investigative 
strike team: uncovering corruption, exposing it, and effecting change. They 
can watch the whole process unfold from a reporter’s suspicion to a writer’s 
story to a legislative fix. And they can get better at it. It’d be a powerful 
combination. That’s the kind of future- of-news that I want to see. 

April 28, 2009 




Adapted from an impromptu rant I gave to some people interested in funding 
government transparency projects. 

I’ve spent the past year and change working on a site,, that 
publishes government information online. In doing that, I’ve learned a lot: I’ve 
looked at everything from pollution records to voter registration databases and 
I’ve figured out a number of bureacratic tricks to get information out of the 
government. But I’ve also become increasingly skeptical of the transparency 
project in general, at least as it’s carried out in the US. 

The way a typical US transparency project works is pretty simple. You find a 
government database, work hard to get or parse a copy, and then put it online 
with some nice visualizations. 

The problem is that reality doesn’t live in the databases. Instead, the databases 
that are made available, even if grudgingly, form a kind of official cover story, 
a veil of lies over the real workings of government. If you visit a site like 
GovTrack, which publishes information on what Congresspeople are up to, 
you find that all of Congress’s votes are on inane items like declaring holidays 
and naming post offices. The real action is buried in obscure subchapters of 
innocuous-sounding bills and voted on under emergency provisions that let 
everything happen without public disclosure. 

So government transparency sites end up having three possible effects. The 
vast majority of them simply promote these official cover stories, misleading 
the public about what’s really going on. The unusually cutting ones simply 
make plain the mindnumbing universality of waste and corruption, and thus 
promote apathy. And on very rare occasions you have a “success”: an extreme 
case is located through your work, brought to justice, and then everyone goes 
home thinking the problem has been solved, as the real corruption continues 
on as before. 

In short, the generous impulses behind transparency sites end up doing 



more harm than good. 

But this is nothing new. The whole history of the “good government” 
movement 1 in the US is of “reformers” who, intentionally or otherwise, 
weakened the cause of democracy. They too were primarily supported by 
large foundations, mostly Ford and Rockefeller. They replaced democratically- 
elected mayors with professional city managers, which required a supermajority 
to overrule. They insisted on nonpartisan elections, making it difficult to 
organize people into political blocs. Arguing it would reduce corruption, 
they insisted city politicians serve without paying, ensuring the jobs were 
only open to the wealthy. 

I worry that transparency groups may be making the same “mistake”. 

These are some dark thoughts, so I want to add a helpful alternative: 
journalism. Investigative journalism lives up to the promise that transparency 
sites make. Let me give three examples: Silverstein,Taibbi, Caro. 

Ken Silverstein 2 regularly writes brilliant pieces about the influence of money 
in politics. And he uses these sorts of databases to do so. But the databases 
are always a small part of a larger picture, supplemented with interviews, 
documents, and even undercover investigation — he recently did a piece 
where he posted as a representative of the government of Turkmenistan 
and described how he was wined and dined by lobbyists eager to build 
support for that noxious regime. The story, and much more, is told in his book 
Turkmeniscam 3 . (His book Washington Babylon 1 is similarly indispensable.) 

Matt Taibbi, in his book The Great Derangement , 5 describes how Congress 
really works. He goes to the capitol and lays out the whole scene: the 
Congressmen naming post offices on the House floor, the journalists typing 
in the press releases they’re handed, the key actions going on behind the 
scenes and out of the public eye, the continual use of emergency procedures 
to evade disclosure laws. 

And Robert Caro, in his incredible book 1 he Power Broker 6 (one of the very 
best books ever published, I’m convinced) takes on this fundamental political 
question of “Who’s actually responsible for what my government is doing?” 
For forty years, everyone in New York thought they knew the answer: power 
was held by the city council, the mayor, the state legislature, and the governor. 



After all, they run the government, right? 

And for forty years, they were all wrong. Power was held — held, for the 
most part, absolutely, without any checks or outside influence — by one man: 
Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. All that time, everyone (especially the 
press) treated Robert Moses as merely the Parks Commissioner, a mere 
public servant serving his elected officials. In reality, he pulled the strings of 
all those elected officials. 

These journalists tackled all the major questions supposedly addressed by 
US transparency sites — who’s buying influence? what is Congress doing? 
who’s in power in my neighborhood? — and not only tell a richer, more 
informative story, but come to strikingly different answers to the questions. In 
this era where investigative reporting budgets have been cut to the bone and 
newspapers are folding left and right, it’s fallen to nonprofits like ProPublica 
and the Center for Independent Media and, from a previous era, the Center 
for Public Integrity, to pick up the slack. They’ve been using the Internet 
in innovative ways to supplement good old-fashioned narrative journalism, 
where transparency sites are a supplement, rather than an end-in-themselves. 

For too long we’ve been funding transparency projects on the model of if-we- 
build-it-they-will-come: that we don’t know what transparency will be useful 
for, but once it’s done it will lead to all sorts of exciting possibilities. Well, 
we’ve built it. And they haven’t come. The only success story its proponents 
can point to is that transparency projects have bred even more transparency 
projects. I’m done working on; I’m done hurting America. It’s 
time to give old-fashioned narrative journalism a try. 

April 23, 2009 

1 . http : / / sociology . ucsc . edu/whorulesamerica/power/ local . html 

2 . http : / /ww. harpers . org / sub jects/KenSilverstein 

3 . http : / /ww . amazon . com/Turkmeniscam-Washington-Lobbyists-Stalinist- 

4 . http : / /ww . amazon . com/Washington-Baby lon-Alexander-Cockburn/ 

5 . http : / /ww. amazon . com/The-Great-Derangement-Terrifying-Politics/ 

6 . http: / /ww. -Moses/dp/ 03 94 72 0245 




If you read the economic textbooks, you’ll find that the job market is a 
market like any other. There’s supply (workers) and demand (employers). 
And the incredible power of market competition pushes the price (wages) 
to where those two meet. Thus massive unemployment is about as likely as 
huge unsold piles of wheat: if people aren’t buying, it’s just because you’re 
setting the price too high. 

And yet, as I write, 17.5% of the country is unemployed. Are they all just 
insisting on being paid too much? Economists are forced into the most 
ridiculous explanations. Perhaps people just don’t know where the jobs are, 
some say. (Maybe the government should run ads for Craigslist.) Or maybe 
it just takes time for all those former house-builders to learn new jobs. (This 
despite the fact that unemployment is up in all industries.) But they’re typically 
forced back to the fundamental conclusion of the textbook: that people are 
just demanding to be paid too much. It might be for the most innocent of 
reasons, but facts are facts. 

John Maynard Keynes’ great insight was to see that all of this was nonsense. 
The job market is a very special market, because the people who get “bought” 
are also the people doing all the buying. After all, why is it that people are 
hired to farm wheat? It’s because, at the end of the day, other people want to 
buy it. But if lots of people are out of a job, they’re doing their best to save 
money, which means cutting back on purchases. And if they cut back on 
purchases, that means there are fewer people for business to sell to, which 
means businesses cut back on jobs. 

Clearly something is badly wrong with the basic economic theory. So let’s 
go through Keynes’ masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, 
and Money, and understand his theory of how the economy works. 

When you get your paycheck at the end of the week, you spend it. But 
presumably you don’t spend all of it — you put some money away to save, 
like you were told as a child. Saving is seen as a great national virtue — thus 



all those Public Service Announcements with talking piggy banks. Everyone 
knows why: put some money away today and it’ll be worth more tomorrow. 

But there’s a kind of illusion involved in this. Money isn’t worth anything on 
its own, it’s only useful because it can buy things. And it buys things because 
it pays other people to make them for you. But you can’t save people in your 
bank account — if fifteen million people are out of work, they can’t put their 
time in a piggy bank for when things are looking up. The work they could 
have done is lost forever. 

So yes, some people can save while others borrow from them — you can 
let your neighbor buy two iPods in exchange for letting you buy four next 
year — but the country, as a whole, cannot. At the end of the day, someone 
has to buy the things we can make. But if everyone’s saving, that means 
people aren’t buying. Which means the people making stuff are out of a job. 

It’s a vicious cycle: if people buy less, companies make less, which means 
people get paid less, which means people buy less. And so on, until we’re all 
out of work. (Thankfully it doesn’t get that bad — but only because some 
people are refusing to lower their wages. The thing that mainstream economists 
said was causing unemployment is actually preventing it!) 

But this cycle can be run in reverse. Imagine Donald Trump hires unemployed 
people to build him a new skyscraper. They’re suddenly getting paid again, 
which means they can start spending again. And each dollar they spend goes 
to a different business, which can start hiring people itself. And then those 
newly- hired people start spending the new money they make, and so on. This 
is the multiplier: each dollar that gets spent provides even more than one 
dollar’s worth of boost to the economy. 

Now let’s look at things from the employer’s side — say you run an truck 
factory. How do you decide how many trucks to make? Obviously, you make 
as many as you think you can profitably sell. But there’s no way to calculate 
something like that — it’s a question about what customers will do in the 
future. There’s literally no way to know. And yet, obviously, trucks get made. 

It used to be, Keynes says, that wealthy men just thought investing was the 
manly thing to do. They weren’t going to sit around and calculate what kind 



of bonds yielded the greatest expected return. Bonds are for wusses. They 
were real men. They were going to take their money and build a railroad. 

But they don’t make rich people like that anymore. Nowadays, they put their 
money in the stock market. Instead of boldly picking one great enterprise to 
invest in, they shift their money around from week to week (or hire someone 
else to do it for them). So these days, it’s the stock market that stimulates 
most new investment. 

But how does the stock market figure out what profits are supposed to 
be? In truth, it has no more clue than you do. It’s really just based around a 
convention. We all pretend that whatever the stock price is now is a pretty 
decent guess and then we only have to worry about the various factors that 
will cause the stock price to change. We forget about the most basic fact: that 
nobody has any clue what the stock price should be to begin with. 

So instead of people trying their best to figure out which businesses will 
make money in the future, and investing in those, we have people who try 
to figure out which stock prices will change in the future, and trying to get 
there first. It’s like a giant game of musical chairs — everybody’s rushing not 
to be the one left standing when the music stops. 

Or, you could say, it’s like those newspaper competitions where you have 
to pick the six prettiest faces from a hundred photographs. The prize goes to 
the person who picks the faces that are most picked, so you don’t pick the 
faces you find prettiest, but instead the faces you think everyone else will 
find prettiest. But it’s not even that, since everyone else is doing the same 
thing — you’re actually picking the faces you think everyone else will think 
everyone else will find prettiest! And no doubt there are some people who 
take this even further. 

You might think this means that someone who actually did the work and 
tried to calculate expected profits would clean up, taking money from all the 
people playing musical chairs. But it’s not so simple. Calculating expected 
profits is really quite hard. To make money, you’d have to be unusually good 
at it, and it seems much easier to just guess what everyone else will do. 

And even if you were somehow good at guessing long-term profits, where 



would you get the money to invest? It’s in the fundamental nature of your 
strategy that your investments seem crazy to everyone else. If you’re successful, 
they’ll write it off as a lucky fluke. And when your stocks aren’t doing well 
(which is most of the time — they’re long-term picks, remember), people 
will take this as evidence of your failures and pull their money out. 

The scary thing is that the more open our markets get, the faster people 
can move their money around and the more trading is based on this kind of 
speculation instead of serious analysis. And that’s scary because — recall — the 
whole point of the stock market is to decide the crucial question of what we, 
as a society, should build for the future. As Keynes says, “When the capital 
development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, 
the job is likely to be ill-done.” 

The best solution is probably a small tax on each trade. Not only would this 
raise a ton of money (modern estimates suggest even a tiny tax could raise 
$100 billion a year), it would help redirect all the brains on Wall Street from 
these wasteful games of musical chairs to something actually useful. 

But even if we solve the problem of the stock market, there’s still some 
irreducible uncertainty. Because whether new investment makes sense always 
depends on whether the economy will be doing well in the future. And whether 
the economy is doing well depends on whether there’s new investment. So, at 
the end of the day, investment doesn’t depend simply on a careful calculation 
of future expected yield, but on our “animal spirits,” our optimism about the 
future. It’s this factor that exaggerates booms and deepens slumps and makes 
it hard to get out of a bad situation. 

Even more perversely, it means economic performance depends in no small 
part on keeping businessmen happy. If electing Obama gets businessmen 
depressed, they might pull back their investments and send the economy 
into a slump. It doesn’t even have to be intentional — they may very well 
believe that a President Obama is bad for the economy. But when you have 
a system that only works when businesspeople feel good, their fears become 
a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The result, Keynes suggests, is that the government will have to step in to 
prevent the economy from crashing every time rich people get a bit of indigestion. 



So that’s how we calculate the income side of things, now what about costs? 
Most costs are pretty clear — you need to buy equipment and hire people. But 
since you need to make stuff now that you can only sell in the future, one of 
your big costs is going to be money to use in the meantime. And the cost of 
money is just the interest rate. (If you get a loan for a million dollars at 5% 
interest, you’re essentially paying $50,000 for the right to use the money now.) 

Thus lowering interest rates increases investment — it reduces the cost of 
getting money, which reduces the cost of making stuff, which means more 
things can make a profit. And if more things can make a profit, more things 
get made, which means more people get hired. So what determines the 
interest rate? 

Well, if the interest rate is the cost of money, the obvious answer is the 
amount of money in circulation. If there’s a lot of money lying around, you 
can get some pretty cheap. Which means that, fundamentally, unemployment 
is caused by a lack of money: more money (assuming people don’t hoard it 
all) means lower interest rates, lower interest rates (assuming expected profits 
don’t crash) means higher investment, higher investment (assuming people 
don’t stop buying) means more employment, and more employment means 
higher prices, which means we’re going to need more money. 

Money is created by the central bank (the Federal Reserve in the US), which 
decides what they want the interest rate to be and then prints new money 
(which they use to buy up government debt) until the interest rate is where 
they want. To get the economy back on track, all they have to do is keep 
lowering interest rates until investment picks up again and everyone has a job. 

But there’s one catch: the interest rate can’t go below zero. (Keynes didn’t 
think this problem was very likely, but in the US we’re facing it right now.) 
What do you do if the interest rate is zero and people are still out of work? 

Well, you can pray that billionaires will start hiring us all to build them giant 
mansions, but that’s no way to run a country. The government has to step in. 
Instead of waiting for billionaires to build pleasure-domes, the government 
can hire people to build things we all need — roads, schools, houses, high- 
speed Internet connections. Although, honesty, it doesn’t have to be things 
we all need. They could hire people to do anything. This is why inspecting 



the stimulus money for waste is so ridiculous — waste is perfectly fine, the 
important thing is to get the money into circulation so that the economy 
can get back on track. 

Another good solution is redistributing income. Poor people are a lot more 
likely to spend money than billionaires. If we take some money from the 
billionaires and give it to the poor, the poor will use it to buy things they 
need and people will get jobs making those things. 

Remember that money is just a kind of illusion. In reality, there are just 
people who want things and people who make things. But we’re stuck in a 
completely ridiculous situation: there are lots of people who desperately want 
jobs making things — they’re literally not doing anything else — while at 
the same time there are lots of people who desperately want things made. It 
seems ridiculous not to do something about this just because some people 
have all the little green sheets of paper! 

Capitalism seems to go through frustrating cycles of booms and busts. Some 
people say the solution is just to prevent the booms — raise interest rates so 
the party doesn’t get out of hand and we won’t all be sorry the next morning. 
Keynes disagrees: the remedy “is not to be found in abolishing booms and 
thus keeping us permanently in a semi-slump; but in abolishing slumps and 
thus keeping us permanently in a quasi-boom.” 

Think back to the dot-com era, when venture capitalists were spending all 
their money laying fiber-optic cable under the street. The right solution wasn’t 
for the Fed to raise interest rates until even punch-drunk venture capitalists 
could realize all this investment in fiber wouldn’t be profitable. The right 
solution was to take their money away. Give it to the poor, who will spend it 
on something useful, like food and clothing. 

So those are Keynes’ prescriptions for a successful economy: low interest 
rates, government investment, and redistribution to the poor. And, for a 
time — from around the 1940s to the 1970s — that’s kind of what we did. 
The results were magical: the economy grew strongly, inequality fell away, 
everyone had jobs. 

But, starting in the 1970s, the rich staged a counterattack. They didn’t like 



watching inequality — and their wealth — melt away. There was a resurgence 
in classical economics, Keynes was declared to have been debunked, and 
interest rates were raised drastically, throwing millions out of work. The 
economy tanked, inequality soared, and things have never been the same 
since. For a while people talked about levels of inequality that hadn’t been 
seen since the 1920s. Then they talked about a recession the size of which 
hadn’t been seen since the 1930s. 

Once again, Keynes provides us with the instructions on how to get out of 
this mess. The question is whether we’ll follow them. 

September 24, 2009 




Barack Obama’s campaign was a model of efficiency and foresightedness. 
Bill Clinton treated his campaign plans like marketing documents, poll- 
testing each proposed new idea, and forcing his administration to only begin 
seriously thinking about what to do once they were in office. Obama, by 
contrast, started early and put together a series of policy teams even before 
the campaign had begun in earnest. 

Each policy team had a different subject — technology, health care, foreign 
policy — and was led by a top ally or fundraiser in the field. Let’s take 
technology, since it’s the case I’m most familiar with. Julius Genachowski 
was named Chairman of the Technology, Media and Telecommunications 
policy working group. Genachowski was a Harvard Law School classmate 
of Obama’s who had gone on to become a chief executive at Barry Diller’s 
IAC/InterActiveCorp (market cap: $2.1 billion). He went on to become a 
venture capitalist and sit on the board of numerous technology companies. 

He used his wealth (annual income: $1.6 million) and influence to become 
the leading Silicon Valley fundraiser for his old classmate — indeed, one of 
Obama’s top fundraisers nationally. As a result, he was the obvious pick to 
define Obama’s technology policy. Genachowski canvassed his fellow Silicon 
Valley business leaders for policy suggestions and his team synthesized the 
results into proposed policy documents. These proposals were circulated 
among a wider circle for further comments before being published on the 
campaign website. 

After the election was won, the teams were reassembled as transition 
teams. Genachowski was again leading the technology team, now named 
the Technology, Innovation & Government Reform Policy Working Group 
(TIGR). It was staffed by old government hands, like Thomas Kalil (Deputy 
Assistant to President Clinton for Technology and Economic Policy, rode 
out the Bush years as Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Science and 
Technology at UC Berkeley). Also brought out were business leaders, like 
Andrew McLaughlin (Head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs 



for Google), and business-affiliated academic experts, like Susan Crawford 
(UMich law professor and a former partner at a DC law firm). 

The teams worked on converting the policy documents from the campaign 
into instructions that would be given to federal agencies or executive orders 
the President could sign. They fleshed out campaign proposals, interviewed 
potential candidates for government positions, and held audiences with 
various interest groups. I visited DC during this period and got to see the 
aforementioned names at DC cocktail parties or the diner outside transition 
headquarters that became the informal meeting-place of the team. “It’s the 
hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” Susan Crawford told me, clearly relishing 
the challenge. 

After the inauguration, the teams disbanded and their members either 
returned to private life or were named to the administration. Genachowski, 
who obviously had his pick of positions, was named chairman of the Federal 
Communications Commission. Thomas Kalil became Associate Director of 
Science and Technology Policy. Susan Crawford became Special Assistant to 
the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. McLaughlin 
went back to work at Google, where his connections to the new administration 
are no doubt invaluable. 

May 17, 2009 




Our minds work by making models of the world and using them to predict 
how things will happen. These models are powerful because they’re so deeply- 
ingrained we don’t even realize we’re using them. They just seem like “common 
sense.” In politics, there are two major models for how voters think, which 
I’ll call the median voter model and the mixed voter model. 

The median voter model says that politics lives on a line from left to right. 
Voters are scattered across this line and vote for the politician that’s closest 
to them on it. Politicians get elected by “positioning” themselves closest to 
the most voters, which usually means in the “center” of the line. 

There are some complications, though. Because primary voters tend to be 
“more extreme” (i.e. Democratic primary voters are all on the left, Republicans 
on the right), politicians take a more extreme tack during the primaries, 
before heading back to the center for the general. And because they don’t 
want to seem like Hip-Hoppers, they’re somewhat constrained by the primary 
positions they take. 

But, in general, this model is pretty widely-accepted in politics. So widely 
that it’s not even thought of as a model — it’s implicitly assumed by all the 
things political commentators say. Comments like “He’s moving to the center 
to pick up votes, ”“[X] couldn’t get elected in that district, so how is someone 
more extreme going to make it?” only make sense because we all have this 
model in our heads. 

But, while I haven’t studied the question in detail, there doesn’t seem to be 
much evidence for this model. Even intuitively, it doesn’t make sense: does the 
average person really develop a location on a one-dimensional issue spectrum 
and then figure out where various politicians stand on that same spectrum? 
The notion seems almost ridiculous. 

UPDATE: Andrew Gelman has studied the question in detail, and concludes 
that the median voter theorem doesn’t seem to be true: “My research with 



Jonathan Katz suggests that being a moderate is worth about 2% of the vote 
in a congressional election: it ain’t nuthin’, but it certainly is not a paramount 
concern for most representatives. . . . Incumbent congressmembers almost 
always win reelection. And, when they don’t, they’re often losing as part of a 
national swing (as in the 1994 Republican sweep or the 2006/2008 Democratic 
shift). And when an incumbent does lose unexpectedly, it can be for something 
unrelated to their votes (remember the “check kiting scandal” of 1992?).” 

The mixed voter model, promoted by George Lakoff and most prominently 
adopted by Howard Dean, says that voters aren’t rational, coherent evaluators 
but a bundle of feelings, prejudices, and contradictions. Politicians get elected 
by playing on the feelings voters already have that would encourage a voter’s’ 
support. Thus, instead of moving to the center to get more votes, Lakoff 
argued politicians should actually become more extreme. Conservatives won 
votes by appealing to people’s sense of order, liberals would have to respond 
by appealing to their sense of empathy. Moving to the center by promoting 
a compromise position that prevented rhetorical appeals of either type, was 
doomed. This model was used to explain why radical conservative politicians 
kept winning elections against moderate and centrist Democrats, when there 
was no evidence of a conservative electorate. 

This model makes much more sense to me, although again I haven’t seen 
too much specific evidence for it. But it’s still pretty rare and seems deeply- 
counterintuitive to most practitioners of politics. But whether it’s right on 
the details or not, it’s clear that unless we evaluate and question these models 
and think about them critically instead of just assuming one is true, it’ll be 
hard to make much political progress. 

July 28, 2009 




“Politics is like the weather: everybody discusses it but nobody actually does 
anything about it. ” 

The golden dome of the Massachusetts State House rises majestically 
over the grass of Boston Common. The sun glints off the dome while kids 
play on the grass, but on the State House steps there is nobody except for a 
couple of my friends — and me, holding a ridiculously-large stack of paper 
that threatened to blow away in the breeze. “This is what failure looks like,” 
I thought. 

Within half an hour, I found myself standing in the same place, surrounded 
by TV cameras and microphones on all sides, reporters throwing questions 
as fast as I could answer them. And the papers hadn’t blown away. How did 
I get here? 

At the beginning of the year, I cofounded a political action committee, 
the Progressive Change Campaign Committee 1 . We had no money and no 
members and not much of a plan for how to get them. We wrote up long 
proposals for big donors on why they should write us checks, and tried 
negotiating with electoral candidates on why they should send us members, 
but neither of these were particularly successful. Then Jon Stewart attacked 
Jim Cramer. 

Cramer came to symbolize the foolishness and vapidity of the media in the 
face of the financial crisis. His blatantly buffoonish cluelessness (“ Don’t move 
your money from Bear! That’s just being silly ! Don’t be silly!’) were the epitome of 
a press that championed the housing bubble and fumbled the crash. We were 
giddy about the press getting their day in scorn, but we wanted to accomplish 
positive change as well. So we hit upon the idea of starting a petition to 
demand CNBC hire someone who was right about the housing crisis. 

We spread the word to friends and bloggers and before we knew it we had 
nearly 20,000 signatures — 20,000 new members. It was quite the start. 



A couple months later, frustrated that Norm Coleman wouldn’t drop his 
spurious legal challenges against A1 Franken being named a Senator, we 
started We asked people to donate a dollar each day Norm 
Coleman didn’t drop out of the race, money we’d spend electing progressive 
candidates. It was featured on Hardball and throughout the political press. 
We also videotaped Norm’s donors’ reactions when we told them about the 
program. But my favorite was when we presented Norm with a big novelty 
check for him to sign, representing all the money he’d raised for progressives. 

Now we had money too. 

I came back from my month offline to find we were raising money for TV 
ads — running ads in DC pressuring representatives to support the public 
health care option, asking whether they’d sold out to their insurance industry 
campaign contributors. And when Sen. Ben Nelson started a campaign to 
stall the health care bill, we filmed an ad with Mike Snider. Mike talked 
plainly to the camera about how, as owner of the local Syzzlyn Skillet, he 
received a call from his insurers saying they were raising his rates by 42%. “I 
can’t afford that!” he exclaimed. And then to hear his own Senator was trying 
to prevent health care reform? 

Mike was just an average guy who made a real political difference. After 
we started airing our ad, Ben Nelson’s spokesperson tried to denounce him 
and the Senator himself called Mike and asked to see his health care bills. 
Mike was a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show and his restaurant has become 
a base of operations for the local political community. Mike’s story was so 
powerful that Ben Nelson was forced to put up his own ads directly responding 
to it — even though Nelson isn’t up for reelection in years — in which he 
(ridiculously) calls Mike a lying DC politician. 

Mike’s story really inspired me as to the difference just one person could 
make, but I never thought that person would be me. When my Senator, Ted 
Kennedy, passed away, I wanted to honor his memory by fighting for the causes 
he fought for. His last request had been a letter to the Massachusetts legislature 
asking them to change the law and let a replacement be appointed to his seat 
to continue his fight for universal health care. Without the change, the seat 
would stay vacant for five months while an election could be scheduled — and 
the next five months will be crucial. 



With the rest of the (growing) PCCC team, we came up with a plan to 
launch a petition asking the legislature to honor that request. We sent out 
an email asking people to sign and tell their friends. Within a few days, we 
had 20,000 signatures. I was blown away — clearly people cared. 

I’d promised to deliver the signatures on Monday, without really thinking 
about what that entailed. I called the office of the Senate President and 
Speaker of the House to ask when I could come by and film a short video of 
the petitions being dropped off. The President of the Senate’s office blew me 
off, insisting that under no circumstances were cameras allowed in their office 
and saying that the President simply couldn’t meet with me. So we decided 
to make the delivery something they couldn’t ignore. 

We emailed our list to ask people in the area to show up on the State House 
steps at 11am Monday. Then we emailed the press and asked them to get 
there at 11:15. 1 stayed up all night the night before, feeding paper into the 
printer trying to print out 20,000 names. Then I grabbed a stack and headed 
to the State House. 

The stack — 600 sheets or so — kept trying to fall over and blow away 
and at the State House there were only a couple friends who were loaning 
me their camera. We decided to go in and scope out President Murray’s 
office. When we came back, our members started arriving: old ladies with 
their grandchildren, college students, and everyone in between. The media 
started pressing closer: a photographer for the Herald, a cameraman for Fox. 
Microphones kept being shoved in my face and people kept asking me to spell 
my name. I hefted the stack of petitions and kept repeating why I was here. 

Local TV news isn’t exactly known for its crack reporters, but I have to say 
I was impressed by Janet Wu. She didn’t just ask me the standard questions, 
but kept pushing me on the hard stuff, barking responses at me, not letting 
me off the hook. The other reporters smelled blood and joined in. Soon I 
was at the center of a full scrum of cameras and microphones — surrounded 
on all sides, every local TV station there. I like to think I comported myself 
well: I didn’t get angry or flustered, I refused to me taken off-message, I kept 
stressing that this was about doing what the people wanted. 

(Later, away from the cameras, Wu was a completely different person. “Hey 



there, little guy,” she cooed at a grandchild. “Hey, it’s OK, you can talk to 
me.” Actually, I thought the kid might have the right idea by staying quiet.) 

At some point all the cameras dematerialized. “OK, go in,” someone said. 
“Just pretend we’re not here.” They’d all rematerialized down the street, to 
film us marching into the capitol, stack of signatures in hand. 

Believe it or not, it’s not easy to walk into the state capitol holding 600 
pieces of paper with TV cameras in front of you and a crowd of supporters 
behind. I kept wondering where to look and trying not to lose the rest of 
the crowd. Who knows how that footage came out. And when I got up the 
steps the reporters dematerialized again and rematerialized inside at the 
Senate President’s office, to film us marching down the hallway. We entered 
her office and all crowded in — I didn’t think we were all going to fit, but we 
just barely did. The receptionist — in the middle of a phone call — looked 
a bit flustered. We waited patiently. Soon a broad-shouldered man in a suit 
came out. “Thanks so much for the petitions,” he said, taking them from me. 
“The proposal will go through the usual process. He turned to head out. I 
was dumbstruck. 

But, bravely, one of the older women spoke up. “Wait,” she said. “The normal 
process? Isn’t this a matter of some urgency?” “All I can say is it will go through 
the usual process. ’’Those women wouldn’t let him go. But eventually he did, 
looking the perfect image of the arrogant unconcerned Boston pol, and Janet 
Wu stuck a microphone in my face. “Do you feel satisfied?” she asked. I started 
to speak but she interrupted. “Wait. OK, go again: Do you feel satisfied?” 

Outside, a cameraman turned the bright lights on one of the older woman. 
She was saying, far more clearly and convincingly than me, that no, she wasn’t 
satisfied. That this was an important issue and she wanted to be heard. I was 
so glad she came. 

And then the press and the supporters dematerialized again. I was left, once 
again, alone with just my friends. We stood in the hallway trying to process 
what just happened. We caught the man who’d taken the petitions as he was 
coming out of the office. “So, what is your actual title?” I asked. “Director of 
Communications,” he said. 



“And where is the Senate President really?” asked a friend. “Oh, she’s in 
Russia,” he explained. “Russia?” “Yeah, she’s helping with a nonprofit to assist 
orphaned children. Pre-scheduled trip. She does it every year.” “You’re saying 
she can’t meet with us because she’s in Russia saving orphans?” I asked. “That’s 
a pretty incredible excuse.” We all laughed. He headed off down the hallway. 

“Wait, one more thing,” a friend called after him. “Where’s a good place 
around here we can get some lunch?” 

Please, sign our petition. 

September 8, 2009 





In the 1990s, a group of psychologists began studying what made experts 
expert. Their first task was to see whether experts really were expert — whether 
they were particularly good at their jobs. 

What they found was that some were and some weren’t. Champion chess 
players, obviously, are much better at playing chess than you and I. But 
political pundits, it turns out, aren’t that much better at making predictions 
than a random guy off the street. 

What distinguishes people who are great at what they do from those who 
are just mediocre? The answer, it seems, is feedback. If you lose a chess game, 
it’s pretty obvious you lost. You know right away, you feel bad, and you start 
thinking about what you did wrong and how you can improve. 

Making a bad prediction isn’t like that. First, it’s months or years before 
your prediction is proven wrong 1 . And then, you make yourself feel better 
by coming up with some explanation for why you were wrong: well, nobody 
expected that to happen; it threw everything else off! And so you keep on making 
predictions in the same way — which means you never get good at it. 

The difference between chess and predictions is a lot like the difference 
between companies and nonprofits. If your company is losing money, it’s 
pretty obvious. You know right away, you feel bad, and you start thinking about 
how to fix it. (And if you don’t fix it, you go bankrupt.) But if your nonprofit 
isn’t accomplishing its goals, it’s much less obvious. You can point to various 
measurable signs of success (look at all the members we have, look at all the 
articles we’ve been quoted in) and come up with all sorts of explanations for 
why it’s not your fault. 

This isn’t to say that we should have companies replace nonprofits, any more 
than we should have chess games replace predictions. The two serve completely 
different goals — nonprofits aim at improving the world, not making money. 
But it does mean that if you’re involved in nonprofits (or predictions), you 



need to be much more careful about making sure you’re doing a good job. 

Unfortunately, few nonprofits do that. Take, for example, the Center for 
American Progress, widely believed to be one of the most effective political 
nonprofits. They say their goal is “improving the lives of Americans through 
ideas and action.” But their “marketing brochure,” while filled with glossy 
photos, doesn’t even attempt to see whether they’re accomplishing this goal. It 
touts that they’ve released “an economic strategy for the next administration,” 
“convened a task force ... to develop policy,” and “developed a plan for the 
bulk transfer auction of at-risk mortgages.” There’s not a single attempt to 
demonstrate that any of these things has approved the lives of Americans, 
let alone estimate how much. 

Measuring things is hard and expensive, even in the simplest cases. Measuring 
the effect of loaning money to Africans seems a lot easier than measuring 
the impact of of a think tank report. But when Peter Singer asked Oxfam 
to measure the effectiveness of giving microcredit to villages in West Africa, 
they declined, on the grounds that it would have taken up half the budget. 

But not measuring is even more expensive. Imagine that Oxfam experimented 
with two microcredit programs and found that one did 10% better than the 
other. Even with this very modest improvement, it would only take helping 
five villages before the experiment paid for itself. 

And, as anyone who’s done these sorts of experiments knows, you often see 
improvements well in excess of 10%. To take a silly example, Dustin Curtis 
experimented 2 with getting more readers of his weblog to follow him on 
Twitter. After four experiments, he’d achieved a 173% improvement. And 
even this is probably underestimating things. I expect many nonprofits are 
not accomplishing their goals at all. Even if they made a little bit of progress, 
their improvement would be mathematically infinite. (It’s also quite possible 
that many nonprofits are actually being counter- productive. After all, before 
we started measuring the effects of medical treatment, we were bleeding 
people with leeches.) 

What can be done about this? I think that everyone who donates to a 
nonprofit should demand an accounting of results — not just the number 
of times they’ve been cited in the media or the number of policy discussions 



they’ve held, but an actual attempt to measure how much they’re improving 
people’s lives. For most nonprofits, I expect these numbers will be depressingly 
small. But that’s much better than having no numbers at all. For feeling bad 
about failing is the first step to doing better next time. 

September 7, 2009 

1 . http : / / wrongtomorrow .com/ 

2 . http : / / dustincurtis . com/ you_should_f ollow_me_on_twitter . html 




I have two friends — let’s call them Qand R — whose political philosophy 
I find alien and fascinating. Like me, they genuinely want to help the poor 
but, like conservatives, they object to most typical solutions for doing so. 
(And yes, I know conservatives claim they want to help the poor, but it 
usually turns out that there are other things they think are more important. 
Not so with Q_and R.) 

Q_thinks the most important thing is how it feels to be poor. The problem 
isn’t so much that they don’t have money, but that they’re made to feel bad 
because of it. Welfare is thus a bad idea because it just makes the poor feel 
worse — not only can they not make money, but they have to come hat-in- 
hand to the government for help. My first reaction to this was that the poor 
were wrong: it wasn’t their fault they were poor, they were just the losers in a 
rigged game. But, of course, they don’t know the game is rigged and things 
they don’t know can’t make them feel better. By focusing on the objective 
facts, Q_argues, we’re ignoring the actual lived experiences of the poor. 

Qjs thus upset by socialist writers, like Orwell ( Down and Out in Paris and 
London, The Road to Wigatt Pier) and Ehrenreich ( Nickel andldimed, Bait and 
Switch), who attempt to get the reader to imagine what it would be like if 
they were poor. Because this is just another way of getting the reader to focus 
on the objective situation. In all probability, the reader will not be poor ands 
thus the question of what it would be like is irrelevant; what’s important is 
what it would be like for the actual poor and that requires talking to them. 

R also objects to welfare policies, but on rather different grounds. R starts 
from the premise that people are bad at making themselves happy. Well-to- 
do professionals, who seem so much better off than the poor, may not actually 
be doing that much better. To continue to live in the style to which they’ve 
become accustomed, they must work long hours at a job they dislike. Because 
of the endowment effect, getting off this treadmill would cause them even 
more pain. A few lucky people earn money at tasks they find fulfilling, but 
perhaps not many more than are happy being poor. 



Welfare — or, indeed, any proposal to improve the objective situation of the 
poor — is a bad idea in R’s view because it simply makes it harder for them 
to get off the treadmill. One might think the right response to this is what 
we might call (with apologies to Thaler) a kind of utilitarian paternalism, 
where the government steps in and shows people how to be happy. But why 
would the government know how to be happy? Having a satisfied life is a 
cultural problem, R argues, and the solution lies in non-governmental steps 
to reform culture. 

I find these arguments interesting because they start from rather inarguable 
premises (what matters is how it feels to be poor, people don’t know the best 
way to make themselves happy) to draw very frustrating conclusions. 

Take CX Corporate profits (and thus employee pay) depend on how much of 
a monopoly the company has. Even the secretary at Google is a millionaire, 
while even the owner of a farm is desperately poor. There’s no way to make 
a company in a competitive market pay more because there just isn’t more 
money to pay. But getting rid of competitive markets seems like a bad idea; 
competition has clearly made our lives better. But if we want to make things 
better for those who aren’t paid well (and let’s just say we do, since that’s kind 
of the basic premise of this whole article), that just leaves transferring money 
from those who have it to those who don’t. Which, according to doesn’t 
make anyone feel better. 

Other countries seem to deal with this by designing the money so that 
money isn’t transferred directly, but is spent on universally available public 
services. It’s not that the French poor get given money they can spend on 
health care, it’s that in France health care is free to everyone. Poor people don’t 
feel singled out and aided — everyone uses government health care. (And the 
wealthy are much less likely to vote against programs they themselves use.) 

This also goes some way to addressing R’s objection: people aren’t being 
given more money to spend how they see fit, they’re being given access to 
services we expect to make them happy. And the access doesn’t ever go away, 
so it doesn’t contribute to the endowment effect. 

Even so, R would argue, much of these universal services are things like 
education which make it so that a broader group of people can sign up to 



work at rat race jobs and thus get on the unhappy treadmill. Why support 
policies that bring more people into this unhappy system? (R also happens 
to think schooling is bad on its own terms, as is health care, but I don’t think 
that’s necessary for the argument.) 

But a tax for service system compresses the whole wage structure. The wealthy 
earn less money, because they pay some of it in taxes, and thus don’t have 
as far to fall. And the poor get more services, which means that even if the 
wealthy do lose their job and fall, they don’t fall as far, since the floor has been 
raised. All of this would seem to make it easier to quit a job you don’t like. 
(Egads, I’m mixing metaphors like Thomas Friedman. Falling off a treadmill 
to services on a higher floor?) Indeed, in the extreme case, services would be 
so high you wouldn’t have to work at all unless you wanted to. (Whether this 
extreme is economically feasible is a separate discussion.) 

So that’s what I’m for: democracy within organizations, transfers between 
organizations, and structuring the rules of the market to maximize social 
benefit. Oh, and euthanasia of the rentier (see article “Keynes, Explained 

October 19, 2009 




When I first started studying the First Amendment — nearly a decade ago; 
yikes, this is a very overdue blog post — I read about the different theories 
trying to make sense of it. Some scholars argued the First Amendment’s 
goal was to create a robust marketplace of ideas: if everyone could share their 
opinion, the truth could come out through robust debate. Others concluded 
the First Amendment was a sort of logical safeguard: by protecting speech 
and assembly and petitions for redress of grievances, it guaranteed people the 
right to work against laws they disapprove of, kind of the way the Second 
Amendment is said to be a bulwark against totalitarianism. 

These aren’t just theoretical debates; the theories have practical consequences 
for how one interprets that key amendment. If you believe it’s for a marketplace 
of ideas, then you will support regulation aimed at correcting market failures 
by suppressing certain kinds of problematic speech. If you believe it’s a political 
safeguard, then you will not be too worried about speech regulation aimed 
at clearly nonpolitical speech. 

Now, I’m not quite sure why such a theory is needed. The First Amendment 
always struck me as perfectly clear: “Congress shall make no law.” No law 
meant no law (at least with regard to content; I’m more lenient when it comes 
to regulating other aspects). But if one has to have a theory, it struck me the 
right one was something completely different: Because We Can. 

The Framers were very skeptical of government. The system they designed 
was full of checks and fetters, of which the First Amendment is probably the 
most extreme (unless you believe in a libertarian conception of the Tenth). 
They saw government as a necessary evil; they were willing to accept it, but 
they wanted to constrain it where they could. 

And speech is a very obvious way to constrain it. A government needs to 
be able to stop violence and make war and so on or its people will get very 
badly hurt. But there’s no reason it has to stop speech. As the old saying goes, 
sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Words 



do hurt, of course, but theirs is a tolerable pain. People, and society, march on 
even in the face of grievous insults. And so the Framers decided to exclude 
this class of regulation from the government’s ambit. Not because speech is 
particularly good, but because it’s not particularly bad. Because it’s one thing 
they could safely exclude. Because we can. 

The implications of this theory for interpretation are obvious: they lead to 
the most expansive conception of the First Amendment compatible with 
the other goals of government: a stable democratic body to promote the 
general welfare, and so on. That’s certainly further than any court heretofore 
has gone and probably a bit further than I’d personally prefer, but isn’t that 
what fetters are for? 

October 20, 2009 




One of the best things about capitalism is the way it handles sociopaths. 
Major executives look up to Alexander the Great and apparently try to follow 
in his footsteps. But instead of leading a murderous campaign across Asia, 
they decide to make something people want: newspapers and movies and 
television shows. True, they’re far from perfect, but you have to admit it’s a 
lot better than mass slaughter. 

Many books have been written about Google, even though we’re all pretty 
familiar with the company to begin with, but what makes Ken Auletta’s Googled 
interesting is that it’s a history of the company as told by the incumbent 
sociopaths. These are the people Auletta has spent his life covering: the media 
moguls who tried to acquire and conquer their own empires of content and 
delivery. And to them what’s most shocking and galling about Google’s incredibly 
rapid rise is that instead of being engineered by a fellow sociopath, it was largely 
done by normal, decent people plainly applying the forces of new technology. 

“What has Google ever done for the world?” ask the sociopaths at various 
points throughout the book. “All they do is steal other people’s content!” 
To a normal human the question is ridiculous — it’s almost impossible 
to imagine life without Googling for something, checking your Gmail, or 
watching videos on YouTube — but sociopaths aren’t used to doing things 
that create value for people. They’re just interested in conquering more and 
taking control. When Disney bought ABC for $19 billion, it didn’t improve 
most people’s lives in any real way, but it did let Michael Eisner regain control 
of the company he once ran. 

So naturally the sociopaths are outraged that their control is being taken away. 
Newspapers, book publishers, television companies, ad agencies — their businesses 
are all failing, while Google’s is on the rise. The sociopaths maybe outraged, but 
this is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Most people don’t have a vested interest 
in whether ABC does well or even continues to exist. What they want are good 
television shows at a reasonable price, and if they can get those from Apple and 
Google instead of their local cable company, then bully for Apple and Google. 



The thing that’s hard for the sociopaths to get their head around is that 
this isn’t because one of their rivals has outsmarted them — it’s just the 
march of technology. When the only way to get most television shows to 
people’s houses was over a wire or across airwaves that could only hold so 
many channels, their particular distribution model made sense. But when the 
same connection — whether cable, DSL, satellite, or WiFi — can let people 
download whatever video program they choose, an entirely new model can 
take hold. The shift isn’t Google’s fault any more than America should be 
blamed for breaking off from Pangea. 

As a result, the closest people to moguls behind the recent shifts in media 
distribution are two computer science grad students: Larry and Sergey. These 
guys don’t even have the decency to behave like real moguls — they wear 
t-shirts and sneakers, get bored during meetings, and like to travel around the 
world instead of around Manhattan. What’s worse, they’re constantly talking 
about “making the world a better place” (by, for example, donating 1% of their 
profits to charity) and “empowering the user” (by cutting out middlemen and 
not forcing choices down people’s throats). Sociopaths don’t talk like that! 
Who do these people think they are? 

Google gets a lot of criticism (often deserved) , but it’s worth taking a moment 
to think of all the things they haven’t done. If Microsoft had Google’s market 
share in search, is there any doubt that they’d be systematically demoting or 
even banning their competitors in the search results? Demoting someone in 
Google is a virtual death sentence, and yet not only has Google never been 
accused of using this vast power, the idea itself is almost unimaginable. 

Hearing things from the sociopaths’ perspective, it’s easy to get fooled. “Yeah!” 
you think. “Why should these Google guys get to control everything?” But 
for average people, this shift has been great: much more stuff is available, 
faster and freer than ever before, and the people making all the money off 
of it are actually decent human beings who feel some responsibility for the 
planet they inhabit. Sure, I don’t agree with them on everything and there’s 
a lot more they can do, but let’s not lose sight of the basic point: at least 
they’re not sociopaths. 

December 14, 2009 




Matt Yglesias saw Lawrence Lessig speak about the problem of money in 
politics concluded his concern on the influence of money in politics was “too 
narrow” 1 . 1 tend to agree that Lessig ’s focus is a bit too narrow — that’s why 
I started the PCCC 2 — but I was shocked by Yglesias’ “broader” solution: 
fewer elected officials. 

Matt’s focus on institutional reforms is definitely a well-needed antidote to 
most politicaljournalists’ tendency to focus on personalities and other small- 
picture details, but in this instance it’s just crazy. In what sense is the number 
of elected officials broader than the influences that come to bear on them? 

Matt seems to be arguing that countries with fewer elected officials are 
better run because voters can monitor the performance of those officials 
better. I don’t see how this argument can possibly survive engagement with 
the details of our political system. 

Let’s take health care, since that’s in the news lately. Health care has basically 
been talked about nonstop by every news outlet, yet even voters who follow 
these things in detail have no clue what’s really in it. (This is true even of my 
friends who are political junkies; they know a public option isn’t in the bill, 
but they basically have no idea what the exchanges are or how they would 
work.) When election season rolls around, campaigns will begin running lots 
of ads about the health care bill. None of these ads will help inform them 
what’s in it. And the press will continue not to inform them about what’s in it. 

I don’t see how having fewer elected officials will change any of this. The 
problem is not that voters try to monitor their elected officials but are simply 
overwhelmed; the problem is that voters have no tools for actually monitoring 
their elected officials in any meaningful sense. Yes, one can point to a Chris 
Hayes flowchart 3 here or an Alec MacGillis guide 4 there, but there’s no way 
any significant number of voters know how to find those things. And even 
if you tell them about those, there’s no system for finding similar documents 
about issues in the future. 



And that’s the biggest issue Congress is considering this session! And 
that’s just its broadest outlines! The health care bill has thousands of pages of 
detailed provisions and it’s just one of thousands of bills Congress is trying 
to pass. There’s nobody who’s even reading all of those provisions, let alone 
trying to figure out which ones are good ideas and which representatives are 
fighting for the good ideas. 

Instead, there’s a vast industry of lobbyists, each of which care really deeply 
about a handful of those tiny issues and are willing to spend vast amounts 
of money and effort persuading members of Congress to take their side. On 
most issues, they face no opposition. So naturally, the members take their side. 

What’s needed is not fewer representatives, but better monitoring systems and 
institutional incentives to make monitoring less necessary. Better monitoring 
systems is what I’m working on and better institutional incentives is what 
Lessig is fighting for. If Matt thinks that fewer representatives is a better or 
“broader” solution, I’d like to hear him explain how it’s going to help. 

Disclosure: I’m on the board of Lessig’s group, Change Congress. 

January 30, 2010 

1 . 


3 . http: / /www. donkey licious .com/2009/09/improved-health-insurance- 

4 . 




The following essay appears in the new O'Reilly book Open Government and 
attempts to combine and clarify some of the points I made in previous essays. It 
was written in June 2009. 

Transparency is a slippery word; the kind of word that, like reform, sounds 
good and so ends up getting attached to any random political thing that 
someone wants to promote. But just as it’s silly to talk about whether “reform” 
is useful (it depends on the reform), talking about transparency in general 
won’t get us very far. Everything from holding public hearings to requiring 
police to videotape interrogations can be called “transparency” — there’s not 
much that’s useful to say about such a large category. 

In general, you should be skeptical whenever someone tries to sell you on 
something like “reform” or “transparency.” In general, you should be skeptical. 
But in particular, reactionary political movements have long had a history 
of cloaking themselves in nice words. Take the Good Government (goo- 
goo) movement early in the twentieth century. Funded by prominent major 
foundations, it claimed that it was going to clean up the corruption and 
political machines that were hindering city democracy. Instead, the reforms 
ended up choking democracy itself, a response to the left-wing candidates 
who were starting to get elected. 

The goo-goo reformers moved elections to off-years. They claimed this was 
to keep city politics distinct from national politics, but the real effect was just 
to reduce turnout. They stopped paying politicians a salary. This was supposed 
to reduce corruption, but it just made sure that only the wealthy could run for 
office. They made the elections nonpartisan. Supposedly this was because city 
elections were about local issues, not national politics, but the effect was to 
increase the power of name recognition and make it harder for voters to tell 
which candidate was on their side. And they replaced mayors with unelected 
city managers, so winning elections was no longer enough to effect change. 1 

Of course, the modern transparency movement is very different from the 



Good Government movement of old. But the story illustrates that we should 
be wary of kind nonprofits promising to help. I want to focus on one particular 
strain of transparency thinking and show how it can go awry. It starts with 
something that’s hard to disagree with. 


Modern society is made of bureaucracies and modern bureaucracies run 
on paper: memos, reports, forms, filings. Sharing these internal documents 
with the public seems obviously good, and indeed, much good has come out 
of publishing these documents, whether it’s the National Security Archive 2 , 
whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have revealed decades of 
government wrongdoing around the globe, or the indefatigable Carl Malamud 
and his scanning 3 , which has put terabytes of useful government documents, 
from laws to movies, online for everyone to access freely. 

I suspect few people would put “publishing government documents on the 
Web” high on their list of political priorities, but it’s a fairly cheap project (just 
throw piles of stuff into scanners) and doesn’t seem to have much downside. 
The biggest concern — privacy — seems mostly taken care of. In the United 
States, FOIA and the Privacy Act (PA) provide fairly clear guidelines for 
how to ensure disclosure while protecting people’s privacy. 

Perhaps even more useful than putting government documents online would 
be providing access to corporate and nonprofit records. A lot of political 
action takes place outside the formal government, and thus outside the scope 
of the existing FOIA laws. But such things seem totally off the radar of most 
transparency activists; instead, giant corporations that receive billions of dollars 
from the government are kept impenetrably secret. 


Many policy questions are a battle of competing interests — drivers 
don’t want cars that roll over and kill them when they make a turn, but car 
companies want to keep selling such cars. If you’re a member of Congress, 
choosing between them is difficult. On the one hand are your constituents, 
who vote for you. But on the other hand are big corporations, which fund your 
reelection campaigns. You really can’t afford to offend either one too badly. 



So, there’s a tendency for Congress to try a compromise. That’s what happened 
with, for example, the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, 
and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Instead of requiring safer cars, Congress 
simply required car companies to report how likely their cars were to roll 
over. Transparency wins again! 

Or, for a more famous example: after Watergate, people were upset about 
politicians receiving millions of dollars from large corporations. But, on the 
other hand, corporations seem to like paying off politicians. So instead of 
banning the practice, Congress simply required that politicians keep track of 
everyone who gives them money and file a report on it for public inspection. 

I find such practices ridiculous. When you create a regulatory agency, you 
put together a group of people whose job is to solve some problem. They’re 
given the power to investigate who’s breaking the law and the authority to 
punish them. Transparency, on the other hand, simply shifts the work from 
the government to the average citizen, who has neither the time nor the ability 
to investigate these questions in any detail, let alone do anything about it. 
It’s a farce: a way for Congress to look like it has done something on some 
pressing issue without actually endangering its corporate sponsors. 


Here’s where the technologists step in. “Something is too hard for people?” 
they hear. “We know how to fix that.” So they download a copy of the database 
and pretty it up for public consumption — generating summary statistics, 
putting nice pictures around it, and giving it a snazzy search feature and 
some visualizations. Now inquiring citizen can find out who’s funding their 
politicians and how dangerous their cars are just by going online. 

The wonks love this. Still stinging from recent bouts of deregulation and 
antigovernment zealotry, many are now skeptical about government. “We can’t 
trust the regulators,” they say. “We need to be able to investigate the data for 
ourselves.” Technology seems to provide the perfect solution. Just put it all 
online — people can go through the data while trusting no one. 

There’s just one problem: if you can’t trust the regulators, what makes you 
think you can trust the data? 



The problem with generating databases isn’t that they’re too hard to read; it’s 
the lack of investigation and enforcement power, and websites do nothing to 
help with that. Since no one’s in charge of verifying them, most of the things 
reported in transparency databases are simply lies. Sometimes they’re blatant 
lies, like how some factories keep two sets of books on workplace injuries: 
one accurate one, reporting every injury, and one to show the government, 
reporting just 10% of them 4 . But they can easily be subtler: forms are misfiled 
or filled with typos, or the malfeasance is changed in such a way that it no 
longer appears on the form. Making these databases easier to read results 
only in easier-to-read lies. 

Three examples: 

1. Congress’s operations are supposedly open to the public, but if you 
visit the House floor (or if you follow what they’re up to on one of 
these transparency sites) you find that they appear to spend all their 
time naming post offices. All the real work is passed using emergency 
provisions and is tucked into subsections of innocuous bills. (The bank 
bailouts were put in the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Act.) Matt 
Taibbi’s The Great Derangement tells the story. 

2. Many of these sites tell you who your elected official is, but what impact 
does your elected official really have? For 40 years, people in New York 
thought they were governed by their elected officials — their city 
council, their mayor, their governor. But as Robert Caro revealed in The 
Power Broker, they were all wrong. Power in New York was controlled 
by one man, a man who had consistently lost every time he’d tried to 
run for office, a man nobody thought of as being in charge at all: Parks 
Commissioner Robert Moses. 

3. Plenty of sites on the Internet will tell you who your representative 
receives money from, but disclosed contributions are just the tip of 
the iceberg. As Ken Silverstein points out in his series of pieces for 
Harper’s 4 (some of which he covers in his bookTurkmeniscam), being 
a member of Congress provides for endless ways to get perks and cash 
while hiding where it comes from. 

Fans of transparency try to skirt around this. “OK,” they say, “but surely some 
of the data will be accurate. And even if it isn’t, won’t we learn something from 
how people lie?” Perhaps that’s true, although it’s hard to think of any good 



examples. (In fact, it’s hard to think of any good examples of transparency 
work accomplishing anything, except perhaps for more transparency.) But 
everything has a cost. 

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent funding transparency 
projects around the globe. That money doesn’t come from the sky. The question 
isn’t whether some transparency is better than none; it’s whether transparency 
is really the best way to spend these resources, whether they would have a 
bigger impact if spent someplace else. 

I tend to think they would. All this money has been spent with the goal of 
getting a straight answer, not of doing anything about it. Without enforcement 
power, the most readable database in the world won’t accomplish much — even 
if it’s perfectly accurate. So people go online and see that all cars are dangerous 
and that all politicians are corrupt. What are they supposed to do then? 

Sure, perhaps they can make small changes — this politician gets slightly less 
oil money than that one, so I’ll vote for her (on the other hand, maybe she’s 
just a better liar and gets her oil money funneled through PACs or foundations 
or lobbyists) — but unlike the government, they can’t solve the bigger issue: a 
bunch of people reading a website can’t force car companies to make a safe car. 
You’ve done nothing to solve the real problem; you’ve only made it seem more 
hopeless: all politicians are corrupt, all cars are dangerous. What can you do? 


What’s ironic is that the Internet does provide something you can do. 
It has made it vastly easier, easier than ever before, to form groups with 
people and work together on common tasks. And it’s through people coming 
together — not websites analyzing data — that real political progress can 
be made. 

So far we’ve seen baby steps — people copying what they see elsewhere and 
trying to apply it to politics. Wikis seem to work well, so you build a political 
wiki. Everyone loves social networks, so you build a political social network. 
But these tools worked in their original setting because they were trying to 
solve particular problems, not because they’re magic. To make progress in 
politics, we need to think best about how to solve its problems, not simply 



copy technologies that have worked in other fields. Data analysis can be 
part of it, but it’s part of a bigger picture. Imagine a team of people coming 
together to tackle some issue they care about — food safety, say. You can have 
technologists poring through safety records, investigative reporters making 
phone calls and sneaking into buildings, lawyers subpoenaing documents 
and filing lawsuits, political organizers building support for the project and 
coordinating volunteers, members of Congress pushing for hearings on your 
issues and passing laws to address the problems you uncover, and, of course, 
bloggers and writers to tell your stories as they unfold. 

Imagine it: an investigative strike team, taking on an issue, uncovering the 
truth, and pushing for reform. They’d use technology, of course, but also politics 
and the law. At best, a transparency law gets you one more database you can 
look at. But a lawsuit (or congressional investigation)? You get to subpoena 
all the databases, as well as the source records behind them, then interview 
people under oath about what it all means. You get to ask for what you need, 
instead of trying to predict what you may someday want. 

This is where data analysis can be really useful. Not in providing definitive 
answers over the Web to random surfers, but in finding anomalies and patterns 
and questions that can be seized upon and investigated by others. Not in 
building finished products, but by engaging in a process of discovery. But 
this can be done only when members of this investigative strike team work 
in association with others. They would do what it takes to accomplish their 
goals, not be hamstrung by arbitrary divisions between “technology” and 
“journalism” and “politics.” 

Right now, technologists insist that they’re building neutral platforms for 
anyone to find data on any issue. Journalists insist that they’re objective 
observers of the facts. And political types assume they already know the 
answers and don’t need to investigate further questions. They’re each in their 
own silo, unable to see the bigger picture. 

I certainly was. I care passionately about these issues — I don’t want politicians 
to be corrupt; I don’t want cars to kill people — and as a technologist I’d love to 
be able to solve them. That’s why I got swept up in the promise of transparency. 
It seemed like just by doing the things I knew how to do best — write code, 
sift through databases — I could change the world. 



But it just doesn’t work. Putting databases online isn’t a silver bullet, as nice as 
the word transparency may sound. But it was easy to delude myself. All I had to 
do was keep putting things online and someone somewhere would find a use 
for them. After all, that’s what technologists do, right? The World Wide Web 
wasn’t designed for publishing the news — it was designed as a neutral platform 
that could support anything from scientific publications to pornography. 

Politics doesn’t work like that. Perhaps at some point putting things on the 
front page of the New York Times guaranteed that they would be fixed, but that 
day is long past. The pipeline of leak to investigation to revelation to report 
to reform has broken down. Technologists can’t depend on journalists to use 
their stuff; journalists can’t depend on political activists to fix the problems 
they uncover. Change doesn’t come from thousands of people, all going their 
separate ways. Change requires bringing people together to work on a common 
goal. That’s hard for technologists to do by themselves. 

But if they do take that as their goal, they can apply all their talent and 
ingenuity to the problem. They can measure their success by the number of 
lives that have been improved by the changes they fought for, rather than 
the number of people who have visited their website. They can learn which 
technologies actually make a difference and which ones are merely indulgences. 
And they can iterate, improve, and scale. 

Transparency can be a powerful thing, but not in isolation. So, let’s stop 
passing the buck by saying our job is just to get the data out there and it’s other 
people’s job to figure out howto use it. Let’s decide that our job is to fight for 
good in the world. I’d love to see all these amazing resources go to work on that. 

Thanks to Andy Oram and Andy Eggers for their insightful comments on earlier 
versions of this essay. 

February n, 2010 

1. For more, see 



4 . http : / /www. harpers . org / sub jects/KenSilverstein 

5. Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. [p. 180] 




Around the time of the Great Depression, a man named John Maynard 
Keynes made an incredible discovery. The reason so many people were out of 
work was not really because of irresponsible banks or high taxes or reckless 
government policy. It was really much simpler than all that: there wasn’t 
enough money. 

Now, as individuals, we’d all like a little more money for ourselves. But pause 
for a moment and think about what it means if there isn’t enough money 
in the economy as a whole. A good way to wrap your head around this is to 
think about a much smaller case: instead of the whole economy, let’s think 
about a now-famous babysitting co-op on Capitol Hill. Instead of dollars, the 
co-op used its own scrip that was worth an hour of babysitting time. When 
you wanted to go out, you’d pay a couple hours to someone else to watch 
your kids; then when they wanted to go out, they’d pay you or someone else 
to do the same for them. 

It all worked great for a while, until one day they found they had too few 
pieces of scrip. Every couple had only a couple hours left and, having so little, 
they didn’t want to waste it. So they all decided to save it for a very special 
occasion. This was kind of an incredible situation — even though there were 
people who wanted someone to babysit their kids, and people who were 
willing to do just that, the deal didn’t happen, simply because the co-op hadn’t 
printed enough colored pieces of paper. Eventually the co-op learned their 
mistake, printed some more scrip and handed it out, and everybody went 
back to babysitting like before and were much happier for it. 

The same thing happens in the real economy. When there aren’t enough 
green-colored pieces of paper around, everybody gets worried and holds on to 
the little they have. Even if you’d like someone to build an extension on your 
house, and there’s someone else out there who’d like to build an extension 
on your house, the deal doesn’t happen, just because you don’t have enough 
green pieces of paper (or, more realistically, dollars in your bank account). 
This is a total waste. You don’t get the extension and the other guy doesn’t 



get a job, all because we haven’t run the printing presses enough (or added 
enough zeroes to the bank’s computers). 

Before the Great Depression, most countries wouldn’t simply print more 
colored pieces of paper. They were on the “gold standard” and they would 
only print more currency when more gold was discovered. This led to the 
most bizarre series of booms and busts as more gold was discovered in strange 
places and then “used up” by population growth or other things. After Keynes, 
countries eventually stopped this silliness and just started printing their money 
directly. As soon as they abandoned the gold standard 1 , they begun recovering 
from the Great Depression. 

But the power to print more money is obviously a very special power and 
you wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands. So, in the United States, 
we’ve taken it away from elected politicians and given it (mostly) to the big 
banks. The banks select people to run their local Federal Reserve and then 
some of those people (along with some additional folks nominated by the 
President) are selected to be members of a group called the Federal Open 
Market Committee (FOMC). The FOMC, essentially, decides how much 
money there should be in circulation, which in turn decides how many people 
have jobs. 

You might think this sounds crazy — a bunch of unelected bankers get to 
decide how many people have jobs? — and, in fact, it is crazy. But I’m not 
making it up. Ask a macroeconomist, like Paul Krugman, and this is exactly 
what he’ll tell you. And if you look in the Federal Reserve Act or on the 
Fed’s website, you’ll find their mission 2 is to “promote effectively the goals of 
maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” 
These multiple goals are relatively recent; before 1978, the goal was simply 
“maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” 

Now some people will claim that the Federal Reserve has done all it can to 
create more jobs but the recession is so deep this time that there’s nothing 
else it can do. But that’s just not true — even the chairman of the Federal 
Reserve, Ben Bernanke, says it’s not true. He was asked about this in a Senate 
hearing. As the Economist summarized his response 3 : “Mr Bernanke does not 
want to risk a de-anchoring of inflation expectations. He is willing to accept 
10% or greater unemployment and the resulting economic and political fall- 



out in order to avoid that risk. 

Which brings us to the subject of inflation. Obviously if you print a lot of 
new money, it makes existing money worth a little less. This is annoying, but 
is it worse than having people out of work? Well, it depends who you are. If 
you have a lot of money, you’re more worried about it becoming worth less. 
But if you work for a living, you’re more worried about people being out of 
work. As you might expect, Mr. Bernanke has a lot of money, as do the other 
bankers on the committee and the people who selected them. So they’ve 
decided to let millions and millions of people be unemployed and the rest of 
us experience the resulting recession rather than risk the chance that some 
of their money might be worth a little less. 

The biggest reason this is possible is because nobody realizes it. If it was 
conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich 
people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced 
to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually 
consider doing something about it. But, incredibly, it just seems like nobody 
has any idea. Voters don’t realize it, politicians don’t understand it, journalists 
don’t cover it. And, in fact, they’re so far from having any idea that it’s really 
difficult to explain it to them. When you say a bunch of unelected bankers 
are the reason there are no jobs, they just look at you like you’re crazy. I’ve 
just spent a page or two explaining it and you still probably think I’m crazy. 
But it’s true! This isn’t some Ron Paul-type crackpot idea; this is mainstream 
economics, from Paul Krugman to the head of George W. Bush’s Council 
of Economic Advisors. 

I feel a bit like the guy in one of those movies, going around and telling 
everyone that the murderer is standing right over there — right there, 
look! — but nobody believes him and people continue to die. It’s incredibly 
frustrating, and I have no idea what to do about it. 

One final point: How did we get into this mess in the first place? Why 
did we suddenly find ourselves without enough money? Well, there was a 
housing bubble: for many years, house prices kept going up and up for no 
other reason than everyone was betting that they were just going to keep going 
up. When house prices were unsustainably high, that was part of the money 
in circulation. But when the music stopped and the bubble popped, house 



prices cratered and nearly $8 trillion disappeared overnight. The government 
has printed a bunch of money since then, but nowhere near the $8 trillion we 
lost. Obviously a lot of other bad stuff happened during the financial crisis, 
but this is the reason everybody is out of work. 

March 14, 2010 

1 . http : / / phoenixwoman . files . wordpress . com/ 2009/0 6 /delong-march2 009 .jpg 

2 . http : / /www . f ederalreserve . go v/ aboutthef ed/ section2a . htm 

3 . http: / /www. economist .com/blogs/freeexchange/2009/12/from_the_horses_ 




I am increasingly convinced that the difference between effective and 
ineffective people is their skill at developing a theory of change. Theory of 
change is a funny phrase — I first heard it in the nonprofit community, but 
it’s also widespread in politics and really applies to just about everything. 
Unfortunately, very few people seem to be very good at it. 

Let’s take a concrete example. Imagine you want to decrease the size of the 
defense budget. The typical way you might approach this is to look around 
at the things you know how to do and do them on the issue of decreasing 
the defense budget. So, if you have a blog, you might write a blog post about 
why the defense budget should be decreased and tell your friends about it on 
Facebook and Twitter. If you’re a professional writer, you might write a book 
on the subject. If you’re an academic, you might publish some papers. Let’s 
call this strategy a “theory of action”: you work forwards from what you know 
how to do to try to find things you can do that will accomplish your goal. 

A theory of change is the opposite of a theory of action — it works backwards 
from the goal, in concrete steps, to figure out what you can do to achieve it. 
To develop a theory of change, you need to start at the end and repeatedly ask 
yourself, “Concretely, how does one achieve that?” A decrease in the defense 
budget: how does one achieve that? Yes, you. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Congress passes a new budget with a smaller 
authorization for defense next year. 

Yes, that’s true — but let’s get more concrete. How does that happen? 

AUDIENCE: Uh, you get a majority of the House and Senate to vote for 
it and the President to sign it. 

Great, great — so how do you get them to do that? Now we have to think 
about what motivates politicians to support something. This is a really tricky 
question, but it’s totally crucial if we want to be effective. After all, if we 



don’t eventually motivate the politicians, then what we’ve done is useless for 
achieving our goal. (Unless we can think of some other way to shrink the 
defense budget.) 

But this is also not an insoluble problem. Put yourself in the shoes of a 
politician for a moment. What would motivate you? Well, on the one hand, 
there’s what you think is right. Then there’s what will help you get reelected. 
And finally there’s peer pressure and other sort of psychological motivations 
that get people to do things that don’t meet their own goals. 

So the first would suggest a strategy of persuading politicians that cutting 
the defense budget was a good idea. The second would suggest organizing 
a constituency in their districts that would demand they cut the defense 
budget. And maybe one of you can figure out how to use the third — that’s 
a little trickier. 

But let’s stick with the first, since that’s the most standard. What convinces 
politicians that something is the right thing to do? 

AUDIENCE: Their beliefs? 

In a sense, I suppose. But those are going to be pretty hard to change. I’m 
thinking more, if you have a politician with a given set of beliefs, how do 
you convince them that cutting the defense budget advances those beliefs? 

AUDIENCE: You outline why to them. 

Well, OK, let’s think about that. Do you think if you ran into Nancy Pelosi 
in the hallway here and you tried to explain to her why cutting the defense 
budget would accomplish her beliefs, that you’d convince her? 

AUDIENCE: Probably not. 

Why not? 

AUDIENCE: Because she wouldn’t really listen to me — she’d just smile 
and nod. 



Yeah. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t trust you. She’s never met you. You’re not 
particularly credible. So you need to find people the politicians trust and get 
them to convince the politicians. 

Alright, well, we can continue down this road for a while — figuring out 
who politicians trust, figuring out how to persuade them , figuring out how to 
get them to, in turn, persuade the politicians, etc. Then, when the politicians 
are persuaded, there’s the task of developing something they can vote for, 
getting it introduced so they can vote on it, then getting them to vote on the 
specific measure even when they agree with the overall idea. You can see that 
this can take quite a while. 

It’s not easy. It could take a while before you get to a concrete action that 
you can take. But do you see how this is entirely crucial if you want to be 
effective? Now maybe if you’re only writing a blog post, it’s not worth it. 
Not everything we do has to be maximally effective. But DC is filled with 
organizations that spend millions of dollars each year and have hardly even 
begun to think about these questions. I’m not saying their money is totally 
wasted — it certainly has some positive impacts — but it could do so much 
more if the people in charge thought, concretely, about how it was supposed 
to accomplish their goals. 

I’ll close with one more example, showing how this strategy can be used 
personally as well. I was at a party once and I told someone I was writing a 
book and that I wanted it to be a bestseller. They laughed at that and I think 
it’s because they had a theory of action model in their head: you write the 
best book you can, and of course you want it to be a bestseller, but either it 
does or it doesn’t. 

But I was working backwards, I had a theory of change: I asked, What 
makes something a best seller? Well, lots of people buy it. OK, how do you 
get lots of people to buy something? Well, you have to persuade them it’s 
something they want. OK, how do you persuade them it’s something they 
want? Well, first it has to meet some desire or need they have and second 
you need to explain to them how it meets that need. So what are the desires 
or needs people have? (Looking at bestsellers: entertainment, escape, self- 
improvement, etc.) What are the ways of explaining your book meets their 
need? (Being popular early on, appearances in the media, persuading readers 



to tell other readers, etc.) 

Again, we can keep going for quite a while until we get all the way back to 
something I can actually do. But because of this, I didn’t have to simply have 
to hope that my book became a bestseller, like every other author. I could 
actually do something about it. 

That’s the power of a theory of change. 

March 14, 2010 





Daniel Wikler posed to me the following problem he encountered while 
Staff Ethicist at the WHOhThe WHO recommends two principles: first, 
treat all citizens equally; second, aim to maximize overall quality of life. But 
imagine two citizens will die without a kidney transplant, one of whom is 
seriously disabled, but there is only one kidney. The first principle requires 
that both have an equal chance of getting the kidney. But the second principle 
requires we give it to the non-disabled person: if the disabled person dies, 
overall quality of life in the society will be higher, since it will have one less 
disabled person. (We accept, by definition, that disability lowers quality of 
life.) What to do? 

Response : It seems pretty clear that the first value is simply wrong. We have 
no interest in promoting the health of the population; the population is 
simply an abstraction. Our interest is in promoting the health of (the sum 
of) individual people, who are conscious and therefore have moral interests. 

One can see this clearly by looking at the cases where the population changes 
but people do not: birth, death, exile, and immigration: 

Birth: The society has a controlled population growth program and assigns 
birth permits; birth permits are assigned to parents with the healthiest genes. 

Death: The society has a limited number of organs; organs are given to the 

Exile: Sick people are tossed out of the society. 

Immigration: Only healthy people are allowed to immigrate. 

In all four such cases, it seems pretty clear to me that the population health 
position is wrong. (Exile seems particularly cruel.) 




Derek Parfit poses 2 the following problem. 1: Imagine there are a group of 
happy people (A). 2: Now imagine that some other people are created in some 
other completely unconnected place that are happy, but less happy than the 
previous group (B). 3: Now imagine that both groups are adjusted to be at 
some equal, but intermediate point of happiness between A and A+. 4: Now 
imagine these two societies are connected, resulting in C: more people at a 
lesser degree of happiness. 

2 is no worse than 1, since the additional people are happy and do not affect 
anyone. 3 is no worse than 2, since the people in B are made happier by more 
than the people in A are made unhappy. 4 is no worse than 3, since we are 
simply introducing folks to each other. But continue this and you reach the 
repugnant conclusion: a huge swarm of people who are just barely happy is 
better than a handful of people who are extremely happy. 

Response : The problem is step 2, which is in fact worse than 1 . Parfit assumes 
that simply adding extra people whose lives are worth living cannot make 
things worse. But that’s ridiculous. Imagine our society, then imagine our 
society with a bunch more feral people living on the huge island of garbage in 
the middle of the Pacific, unable to speak except in a growl, with none of the 
surrounding societies ever noticing. I think the people living in the garbage 
heap’s lives would be worth living (I wouldn’t want to kill them, nor would 
they want to be killed), but I distinctly prefer the former society. 


Many people say that we shouldn’t eat animals, because that would mean 
killing them. But for many of these animals, if they aren’t going to be killed 
and eaten, they would never be born in the first place. What if the animal 
preferred to have a short, pleasant existence before being consumed as food 
rather than having no existence at all? Wouldn’t that mean we should breed 
the animal, give it a nice life, then kill and eat it? 

Response: This is a ridiculous hypothetical — you’re suggesting an animal that 
doesn’t exist yet has a preference about existing. I don’t respect hypothetical 
creatures’ hypothetical desires to not be hypothetical. If I did, you could get 



me to do all sorts of absurd things just by hypothesizing them. You could, 
say, simply hypothesize a utility monster’s very strong desire to exist and I 
would be morally bound to try to create one. Or perhaps my hypothetical 
children really want to exist, so I have to hurry to procreate. That’s ridiculous. 

I think we should maximize the actual interests of actual people. 


As a consequentialist, if I support not adding people (as I do in my resolution 
to 2 and 3), then I must support removing people, since the consequences 
are identical. If I prefer a society with fewer, happier people, then I must 
support euthanizing some people to make the rest better off. Sure, there are 
practical questions with implementing this, but philosophically, I must be in 
favor of eliminationism. 

Response: I am not a consequentialist about societies, I’m a utilitarian: I think 
we should work toward outcomes that maximize the interests of individuals. 

There’s a fundamental disanalogy between addition and contraction. Addition 
means creating new people with interests that didn’t exist before the addition. 
Contraction, on the other hand, means getting rid of actually- existing people. 
I do not respect the hypothetical interests of hypothetical individuals to not 
be hypothetical, but I do respect real people with real interests right now, 
who presumably have an interest in not being gotten rid of. Thus, I support 
not getting rid of people and not arbitrarily creating new ones. 

March 8 , 2010 

1. The problem is also discussed in F.M. Kamm, "Disability, 
Discrimination, and Irrelevant Goods" 

2 . 




When you’re writing laws, changing the smallest details can have huge 
effects. But I’ve never seen anything as big as what happened this week, 
when the White House gutted an entire section of financial regulation by 
removing the letter s. 

Right now, shareholders of big companies vote to decide who will be on 
the board of directors by filling out a mail-in ballot called a proxy card. But 
currently the corporation’s CEO gets to decide who’s on the card! The result 
is a board hand-picked by the CEO — and they return the favor by providing 
CEOs with exorbitant salaries. 

The current financial regulation bill — in a provision passed by both the 
House and Senate — would change that by allowing shareholders with 5% 
of the stock to come together and propose additional names for the ballot. 
But the White House is trying to gut this proposal at the last minute, and 
they’ve done it in an incredibly sneaky way — they removed the letter s from 
the end of the word shareholders. 

Now instead of shareholders whose stock adds up to 3% coming together, 
you have to be a single shareholder with 5% of the stock all by yourself. 
And for most big companies, there just isn’t anyone like that. Take GE, for 
example — its biggest shareholder only owns about 3.4% of the company. 

So by removing a single letter, they managed to make this provision 
completely useless. 

The White House is being barraged by major CEOs begging them to keep 
fighting for this provision — after all, no CEO wants to see their lavish salaries 
cut! As Barney Frank put it, “I think there are some people in the White 
House who think, ‘Well, we’re fighting the financial institutions, but why 
fight with some of the others, you know, the other corporations?”’ Apparently 
they’re so scared of a fight, they’re willing to gut a provision passed by both 
the House and Senate. 



If you’re interested in fighting for real corporate reform, please sign our 
petition to the White House: 

“Stop lobbying against shareholder power in corporate decision- 
making — and against protections that would finally rein in CEO pay. 
That’s not change we can believe in.” 

June 21, 2010 




Liberals don’t like talking about crime. The classic answer — fixing the 
root causes of crime — now seems hopelessly ambitious. And our natural 
sympathy for the millions ground down by an out-of-control prison system 
and a pointless war on drugs doesn’t play well with voters, especially when 
most criminals can’t vote. The general belief seems to be that the problem of 
crime has been solved — after all, crime levels have dropped dramatically 
since the law-and-order 80s — and that the real problem now is not too 
much crime, but too much punishment. If voters don’t agree, it’s because 
TV news continues to obsess over violent crime even as actual occurrences 
of it have cratered, leaving behind a population who wants to do even more 
to crack down on an army of bad guys who don’t really exist. The smartest 
liberal position on crime seems to be changing the subject and talking about 
white-collar crime instead (which, as recent economic news has made clear, 
is a real epidemic). 

Mark Kleiman, in his brilliant new book, When Brute Force Fails, takes a 
different view. Crime, aside from drug crimes (where his work persuasively 
argues that “the abuse of illicit drugs is a human tragedy but not a major 
threat to the social order”), is serious. (Presumably this only applies to classic 
violent crimes; it’s obvious this logic doesn’t work for violations of copyright 
law and civil disobedience.) Even where there’s a small amount of actual crime, 
it’s possible that’s just because people are wasting so much time preventing 
it. There’s a serious social cost to having to remember to lock our doors and 
carry our keys around all the time, let alone the money we waste on burglar 
alarms and car-tracking services and all the rest. 

While I find the methodology he uses to show it wildly problematic 1 , 1 agree 
with his point that crime really sucks. Even if a burglar only causes $400 
worth of damage, I’d pay far more than $400 to prevent a burglary — the 
loss of privacy, the sense of violation, the disruption of my normal order, the 
distraction of having to deal with police and repairmen and insurance agents, 
etc. all add up to make burglary a nightmare well above the direct economic 
damage it causes. 



Such things are a frustration for white suburbanites, but for poor people 
stuck in the ghetto, they’re a nightmare. Crime is yet another disadvantage 
and a particularly noxious one at that. Even aside from all the other indignities 
suffered by the poor, just imagining life in a crime-ridden neighborhood is 
enough to make your skin crawl. 

But, Kleiman insists, we also have to count the harm to the criminals! Going 
through lengthy court proceedings, spending years in abusive prisons, having 
to deal with officious parole officers and the loss of liberty they cause are all 
serious costs and we can’t wave them away just because they happen to the 
bad guys. Law enforcement isn’t a zero-sum game: both criminals and victims 
can benefit from less punishment. 2 

So there’s the question: How can we have less crime with less punishment? 
The first thing to notice is that low-crime is an equilibrium state: if nobody 
is committing any crimes, all anti-crime resources can be focused on anyone 
who decides to break the law, making it irrational for them to even try. But 
high-crime is also an equilibrium (assuming reasonable levels of punishment): 
if everyone is breaking the law, the police can’t possibly stop all of them, so 
it’s not so risky to keep on breaking the law. 

To reduce both crime and punishment, you just need to tip the society from 
one equilibrium to the other. And, Kleiman argues, we can do that with a 
technique he calls “dynamic concentration.” Imagine there are three robbers 
(Alice, Bob, and Carol) and one policeman (Eve). Eve can only stop one robber 
at a crime, so if more than one person is committing a burglary at the same 
time, she decides to be fair and switch around who she arrests — sometimes 
she nabs Alice, sometimes Bob, sometimes Carol. 

The problem is that the robbers know this and they know it means they only 
have a 1/3 chance of getting caught. A guaranteed arrest is bad news, but a 
1/3 chance of getting arrested isn’t worth quitting over. So the robbers keep 
on robbing and the cop keeps failing to keep up with them. 

But now imagine Eve adopts a new policy: dynamic concentration. Instead 
of randomly deciding who to go after, she goes after people in alphabetical 
order. So if Alice is committing a crime, Eve always goes after her first if she’s 
committing a crime — otherwise Bob, and then Carol. Now Alice knows that 



if she robs someone, she’s guaranteed to get caught (instead of just having 
a one-third chance), so she decides to sit this one out. You might think this 
would just lead Bob to step into the breach, but now that Alice is out, Eve 
can turn her focus to Bob instead. So Bob also decides to call it quits. That 
just leaves Carol, who Eve now gets to watch like a hawk, and so Carol also 
gives up the game. And there you have it: dynamic concentration stops all 
the crime without adding any more police. 

Obviously things aren’t so clean in the real world, but I think this is the 
first game-theoretic argument I’ve read that seems to have some real force. 
Kleiman backs it up with some messier simulations and some real-life 
examples. Unfortunately, most are stories about cracking down on drugs or 
other unserious crimes like squeegee men, but the general point seems to work. 

For twenty years, High Point, North Carolina had tried to fight the crack 
dealing in the city’s African-American West End neighborhood. Any viewer 
of The Wire can guess the results: as soon as they made a case against one drug 
dealer, another would jump in to take his place. So with the help of crime 
scholar David Kennedy, they tried a new approach. First, they spent months 
building trust between the police and the community to build consensus 
that the drug trade was something worth stopping. Then they pushed extra 
resources into the neighborhood and started putting together cases against 
the dealers — but didn’t make any arrests. Only when they had a case against 
every known dealer did they act. 

Even then they didn’t make arrests. They visited the dealer’s homes with 
a neighborhood leader, who told them that the neighborhood had decided 
they had to go straight. Meanwhile a cop presented them with the legal 
case against them. The pair asked the dealer to quit and offered whatever 
services — tattoo removal, job training — would help them do that. Ten of 
the thirteen dealers took them up on the offer, leaving plenty of room for the 
justice system to lock up the remaining three, plus the one new dealer who 
tried to take over their old business. Five years later, the market is still closed, 
and the police have been able to direct their resources to pull the same trick 
on the other drug markets. Crime is down, and arrests are down too. Dynamic 
concentration works, with the city’s different drug markets standing in for 
Alice, Carol, and Bob. (The other examples — especially Hawaii’s HOPE 
program — are even more interesting, but take longer to tell.) 



Dynamic concentration isn’t a panacea. Obviously it only works where the 
costs of monitoring are much less than the costs of enforcement. But this 
still leaves lots of opportunities and clever selection of the population to 
concentrate on can significantly decrease the cost of monitoring. 

While the big idea of dynamic concentration is at the center of the book, 
it’s not one of those one-trick monographs where the author lays out one 
good idea and then spends the rest of the book repeating it. Instead, the 
book ranges over the whole theory and practice crime control in America 
and nearly every page is filled with interesting facts and a new perspective. 

And in a brilliant final chapter, he turns his lens on himself and asks what 
could go wrong with his proposals. For an intellectual, the level of humility 
and self-criticism involved is truly impressive. (He confesses to probably all 
of the complaints that you’re thinking about raising right now.) 

For anyone interested in policy analysis, this book should be a classic. It 
shows how simple tools (calculating the scale of the problem, modeling it 
with game theory, and calculating the costs of a solution) can have radical 

1 . Kleiman uses surveys asking people how much they would pay to achieve 
a ten percent reduction in a crime. Aside from all the usual problems 
with such willingness-to-pay metrics, this seems like a particularly 
meaningless question. I don't have a good sense of what the crime 
rate is, let alone what a 10% decrease in it would look like. I can't 
possibly assign a sensible monetary value to something so abstract. 

It'd be better to ask people what they'd pay to prevent one crime, 
assuming the crime rate is low enough that Karelis-type effects don't 
come into play. 

2 . Since a rational criminal would by definition be better off committing 
the crime, this mainly comes up in cases of information asymmetry. 

Unlike in playground games of Cops and Robbers, real police are 
better off warning the criminals away from doing crime than tricking 
them into doing it and then sneaking up and catching them. 

October 18, 2010 




Waiting for “Superman”, in case you haven’t heard, is the hot new film from 
Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. While his last film capitalized 
on liberal guilt over destroying our planet (and maybe voting for Ralph 
Nader?), “Superman (yes, the film is weirdly insistent on those unnecessary 
quotation marks) is for people who feel bad about sending their kids to private 
school while poor kids wallow in the slums. 

“Teaching should be easy,” Guggenheim declares as we watch a cartoon 
teacher rip open his students’ skulls and pour what looks like blue Spaghetti- 
O’s inside. (When he closes the skulls the kids sprout wings and fly out the 
open classroom window.) This is about as close as the film gets to depicting 
actual teaching. (I checked with the friend who paid for my ticket and he 
confirmed this scene was meant seriously, though thankfully not literally.) 

Despite repeatedly insisting poor kids just need better teachers, the film 
never says what it is that better teachers actually do. Instead it highlights the 
voices of American Express pitchman Geoffrey Canada and Bill Gates, whose 
obsessions with higher standardized test scores have led their schools to cancel 
recess and art in favor of more hours of scripted memorization. Why bother 
with art if teaching is just about filling kids’ heads with pre- determined facts? 

The real crisis in American education isn’t teachers’ unions preventing 
incompetent teachers from getting fired (as awful as that may be), it’s the 
single-minded focus on standardized test scores that underlies everything 
from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top to the charter 
schools lionized in the film. Real education is about genuine understanding 
and the ability to figure things out on your own; not about making sure every 
7th grader has memorized all the facts some bureaucrats have put in the 7th 
grade curriculum. 

This would be obvious if the film dared to show real teaching in the schools 
it lauds. Instead of the rich engagement you imagine from progressive private 
schools, you find teachers who read from assigned scripts while enforcing a 



regime of zero-tolerance discipline. They’re nightmarish gulags where childrens 
innate creativity is beaten out of them and replaced with martial order. Because 
standardized behavior is what makes you do well on standardized tests. 

Film is the perfect medium for showing what this life is like. Seeing terrified 
kids up on the big screen, you can’t help but empathize with them. So we 
never see it. Instead, the film hides behind charts and graphs and interviews. 
“When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art,” Geoffrey Canada 
tells us, but this is something Guggenheim would rather tell than show. 

The film has other flaws. It insists all of America’s problems would be 
solved if only poor kids would memorize more: Pittsburgh is falling apart 
not because of deindustrialization, but because its schools are filled with bad 
teachers. American inequality isn’t caused by decades of Reaganite tax cuts 
and deregulation, but because of too many failing schools. Our trade deficit 
isn’t a result of structural economic factors but simply because Chinese kids 
get a better education. Make no mistake, I desperately want every kid to go 
to a school they love, but it seems far-fetched to claim this would solve all 
our country’s other problems. At the end of the day, we have an economy that 
works for the rich by cheating the poor and unequal schools are the result 
of that, not the cause. 

I’m glad a talented filmmaker has decided to draw attention to the horrible 
inequities in our nation’s schools. But I’m terrified that the solutions put forth 
by its proponents will only make things worse. We know what happens when 
we fire teachers who don’t do enough to raise their students’ test scores, or 
when we adopt more stringent requirements for classroom curriculum: we 
squeeze out what little genuine education these schools have left. And that’s 
something we should really feel guilty about. 

October 8 , 2010 




Thing s you can buy are typically divided into tangible things (goods) and 
intangible actions (services). But recently I’ve realized there’s a much more 
interesting type of thing to buy: delegations. 

A delegation is like a service, except instead of asking someone to do a 
specific thing, you ask them to achieve some goal. Hiring someone to paint 
your wall white would be a service, hiring someone to make your house pretty 
is a delegation. 

Delegations are a lot harder than services. In the same way you can be pretty 
sure that when you buy a pen it will write, you can be pretty sure that when 
you hire someone to paint your wall white, she’ll actually do it. And if she 
doesn’t, you can just not pay her. 

But if you want to hire an interior designer, it’s a mess. Let’s say you pick one 
by looking through their portfolio and concluding that you like their work. 
But when they come to design your place, you hate the result. What can you 
do? You say that what you got looks nothing like the stuff in the portfolio 
and they’ll just say that every space is different and so has a different result. 
There’s no way to ever prove they did a bad job. 

And that’s something fairly inconsequential. Imagine you’re wrongly charged 
with murder 1 or stricken with a potentially-fatal illness. Picking the right 
lawyer or doctor could make the difference between life and death. 

But now there’s not even a portfolio for you to look at. Sure, you can see 
if the lawyer’s won a lot of cases or if the doctor’s kept most of her patients 
alive, but that doesn’t tell you much — it probably just means they’re either 
very lucky or mostly choose easy cases. 

Perhaps instead of looking at outcomes, you could look at the decisions they 
made along the way. But even if you could get your hands on those records, 
how could you possibly learn enough about law or medicine to evaluate 



them? And even if you somehow tried, there’s probably all sorts of relevant 
specific details about the circumstances that could never make it into even 
the most detailed histories. 

But it’s not just hard for the delegator — for the same reason, it’s hard for 
the delegatee. If you want to be great at painting walls white, it’s easy to get 
pretty immediate feedback about whether you did the job correctly. But if 
you’re a elementary school teacher, you’ll really just never know. You hope 
you’re helping your kids succeed in life, but there’s no way for you to check 
that. And what are the chances that you started doing everything right just 
by intuition? 

No, the expert performance movement has shown the only way to get really 
good at something is to practice, continually comparing what you did against 
the results it achieved. But in any sort of delegated job this is practically 
impossible: the uncertainties are too great, the feedback loops take too long, 
the opportunities to practice much too rare. 

Traditionally, we solve these problems by having an academic discipline 
figure out the right thing to do using scale. If doctors were just on their 
own, they’d still be no better than witch doctors: people would come in with 
problems and they’d pick a random herb or spell to try and pray it made the 
patient feel better. They’d never really know whether they were helping or 
hurting. But they’re not on their own: because medical schools can conduct 
randomized trials with hundreds of people, they can just read the results and 
learn what actually works. 

A lot is still left to individual judgment — there’s not a medical study for 
every scenario and even if there was, you’d still have to choose how to interpret 
the results — but there is definitely a trend toward knowing more. And some 
of the most exciting developments in medicine come from replacing human 
judgment with checklists and decision trees. 

But medicine is probably the best-case scenario. I’ve never heard of lawyers 
reading up on the results of statistical trials 2 and aesthetics is so subjective and 
fashion so temporary that I doubt anything like this could ever be possible for 
interior designers. (Education is probably somewhere in the middle.) How 
do people ever get good at these things? 



Part of why running a nonprofit is so hard is that pretty much all nonprofits 
are delegation. Donors aren’t buying a particular thing they know they want, 
they’re buying a chance to help others, without knowing exactly what it is they 
want. And that’s why randomized controlled trials 3 have been transformational 
for the nonprofit sector — they’ve converted a delegation into a service. Great 
nonprofits 4 don’t have to guess at what will help people the most; they just 
need to look up the most helpful service and then purchase more of it. 

Poor Economics 5 is a remarkable book if only because it shows how crucial 
this is. It’s full of tales of small-scale experiments where well-intentioned 
do-gooders try hard to help some people and fail catastrophically. But they 
only notice because there are academics there collecting data; in the typical 
nonprofit, where the decisionmakers are far removed from the evidence on the 
ground, they’d probably never know that much was going wrong (assuming 
that they even cared 6 ). 

But “political” nonprofits don’t get off so easily. It’s fairly impractical to do 
randomized controlled trials of things like lobbying, public campaigning, 
white papers, investigative journalism, public relations, strategic litigation, 
electoral campaigns, and the rest. There are brave and noble efforts 7 to try 
to improve some of the details most amenable to testing, but while you can 
test which direct mail flyer makes people more likely to vote, it’s hard to test 
whether GOTV mail is a good use of campaign funds at all. 

Now you can get a lot out of combining all these things 8 so you can make 
big-picture decisions about how to allocate resources. And you can get a 
lot out of having the same team do them over and over so they can build 
up institutional expertise. But there’s also a lot of room for learning within 
each one as well. Just as randomized controlled trials have revolutionized 
development nonprofits, I think political nonprofits will be revolutionized 
by developing institutional structures to formalize the process of learning 
from campaigns. 

What would this look like? A good first step would be developing a series 
of case studies of major campaigns, successful or unsuccessful, to get some 
sense of big picture stories. From this, you could distill a toolbook of various 
tactics, with some notes on which seem to be more and less effective and 
some open questions or avenues of exploration for each. Then within each 



tactic, you could bring together practitioners to swap best practices and try 
to improve the state of the art. 

Interviewing people right after campaigns also seems like a fruitful avenue. 
As they look back on what happened, what do they see as the big mistakes? 
The big successes? What do they wish they’d had? 

These might all seem like minor, parochial concerns, but when you stop 
to realize that the world is full of huge problems that can only be solved 
by collective action, figuring out how to inspire coordinated action most 
effectively doesn’t just seem interesting — it seems essential. 

July 18, 2011 

1 . http : / /www . newyorker . com/ reporting/ 2009/09/07/09090 7 f a_f act_grann 

2 . http : / /blogs . discovermagazine . com/ notrocketscience/2 011/04/11/ 
decisions-of- judges/ 

3 . http: / / 



6 . http : / /byliner . com/ originals/three-cups-of-deceit 

7 . http: / /www. nytimes. com/20 10/ 10/3 1 /magazine/ 3 lpolitics-t. 

8. see article "Investigative Strike Teams" 




The government of a republic, James Madison wrote in Federalist No.39 
(Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles, 1788), must “be derived 
from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, 
or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising 
their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of 
republicans, and claim for their government the honorable title of republic.” 

Looking at our government today — a House of professional politicians, 
a Senate filled with multimillionaires, a string of presidential family 
dynasties — it seems hard to maintain that our officials are in fact “derived 
from the great body of the society” and not “a favored class” merely posing 
as representatives of the people. 

Unless politics is a tradition in your family, your odds of getting elected 
to federal office are slim. And unless you’re a white male lawyer, you rarely 
get to vote for someone like yourself in a national race. Nor, in reality, do we 
have an opportunity to choose policy positions: no major candidates support 
important proposals that most voters agree with, like single-payer health care. 

Instead, national elections have been boiled down to simple binary choices, 
which advertising men and public relations teams reduce to pure emotions: 
Fear. (A bear prowls through the woods.) Hope. (The sun rises over a hill.) 
Vote Smith. Or maybe Jones. 

Nor does the major media elevate the level of debate. Instead of substantive 
discussions about policy proposals and their effects, they spend their time 
on horse-race coverage (who’s raised the most money? who’s polling well in 
Ohio?) and petty scandals (how much did that haircut cost? was someone 
somewhere offended by that remark?) 

The result after all this dumbing down? In 2004, voters who said they chose 
a presidential candidate based on the candidate’s agendas, ideas, platforms, or 
goals comprised a whopping 10% of the electorate. So it’s not too surprising 



when political scientists find that voters’ decisions can be explained by such 
random factors as whether they like red or blue, whether the economy is 
good or bad, or whether the current party has been in office for long or not. 

Aside from the occasional telephone poll, the opinions of “the great body 
of the society” have been edited out of the picture. Way back in Federalist 
No. 10 (The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction 
and Insurrection (continued), 1787), Madison put his finger on the reason. 
“However small the republic may be,” he noted, “the representatives must be 
raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few.” But 
similarly, “however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, 
in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude.” 

The result is that the population grows while the number of representatives 
stays fixed, leaving each politician to represent more and more people. The 
first Congress had a House of 65 members representing 40,000 voters and 
three million citizens (they had a whopping 1.3% voter turnout back then). 
That’s a representative for around every 600 voters or 46,000 citizens (the 
size of the average baseball stadium). A baseball stadium may be a bit of an 
unruly mob, but it’s not unimaginably large. 

Today, by contrast, we have 435 representatives and 300 million citizens — one 
for roughly every 700,000 citizens. There isn’t a stadium in the world big 
enough to hold that many people. It’s a number more akin to a television 
audience (it’s about how many people tune in to watch Keith Olbermann 
each night). 

Which is exactly what the modern constituency has become: the TV 
audience following along at home. Even if you wanted to, you can’t have a 
real conversation with a TV audience. It is too big to convey a sense of what 
each individual is thinking. Instead of a group to represent, it’s a mob to be 

I agree with Madison that there is roughly a right size for a group of 
representatives “on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. 
By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives 
too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as 
by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too 



little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects.” 

But what Madison missed is that there is no similar limit on the number 
of such groups. To take a technological analogy, the Internet is, at bottom, 
an enormous collection of wires. Yet nobody would ever think of it this way. 
Instead, we group the wires into chips and the chips into computers and the 
computers into networks and the networks into the Internet. And people only 
deal with things at each level: when the computer breaks, we can’t identify 
which wire failed; we take the whole thing into the shop. 

One of the most compelling visions for rebooting democracy adopts this 
system of abstraction for politics. Parpolity, developed by the political scientist 
Stephen Shalom, would build a legislature out of a hierarchical series of nested 
councils. Agreeing with Madison, he says each council should be small enough 
that everyone can engage in face-to-face discussion but large enough that 
there is a diversity of opinion and the number of councils is minimized. He 
estimates the right size is 25 to 50 people. 

So, to begin with, let us imagine a council of you and your 40 closest 
neighbors — perhaps the other people in your apartment building or on 
your block. You get together every so often to discuss the issues that concern 
you and your neighborhood. And you may vote to set policy for the area 
which the council covers. 

But your council has another function: it selects one of its own to send as 
a representative to the next council up. There the process repeats itself: the 
representative from your block and its 40 closest neighbors meet every so 
often to discuss the political issues that concern the area. And, of course, 
your representative reports back to the group, gets your recommendations 
on difficult questions, and takes suggestions for issues to raise at the next 
area council meeting. 

By the power of exponents, just five levels of councils, each consisting of only 
fifty people, is enough to cover over three hundred million people. But — and 
this is the truly clever bit — at the area council the whole process repeats 
itself. Just as each block council nominates a representative to the area council, 
each area council nominates a representative to the city council, and each city 
council to the state council, each state council to the national council, and so on. 



Shalom discusses a number of further details — provisions for voting, recalls, 
and delegation — but it’s the idea of nesting that’s key. Under such a system, 
there are only four representatives who stand between you and the people 
setting national policy, each of whom is forced to account to their constituents 
in regular, small face-to-face meetings. Politicians in such a system could not 
be elected through empty appeals to mass emotions. Instead, they would have 
to sit down, face-to-face, with a council of their peers and persuade them that 
they are best suited to represent their interests and positions. 

There is something rather old-fashioned about this notion of sitting down 
with one’s fellow citizens and rationally discussing the issues of the day. But 
there is also something exciting and new about it. In the same way that blogs 
have given everyone a chance to be a publisher, Wikipedia lets everyone be 
an encyclopedia author, and YouTube lets anyone be a television producer, 
Parpolity would let everyone be a politician. 

The Internet has shown us that the pool of people with talent far outnumbers 
the few with the background, connections, and wealth to get to a place in 
society where they can practice their talents professionally. (It also shows us 
that many people with those connections aren’t particularly talented.) 

The democratic power of the Net means you don’t need connections to 
succeed. In a world where kids can be television stars just by finding a video 
camera and an Internet connection, citizens may begin to wonder why getting 
into politics is so much harder. 

For many years, politicians had a ready excuse: politics was a difficult job, 
which required carefully weighing and evaluating evidence and making 
difficult decisions. Only a select few could be trusted to perform it; the vast 
majority of the population was woefully underqualified. 

And perhaps in the era of a cozy relationship between politicians and the 
press, this illusion could be sustained. But as netroots activists and blogs push 
our national conversation ever closer to the real world, this excuse is becoming 
laughable. After all, these men and women of supposedly sober judgment 
voted overwhelmingly for disasters like the Iraq War. “No one could have 
ever predicted this, ’’TV’s talking heads all insist. No one, that is, except the 
great body of society, whose insistence that Iraq did not pose a threat and 



that an occupation would be long and brutal went ignored. 

New online tools for interaction and collaboration have let people come 
together across space and time to build amazing things. As the Internet breaks 
down the last justifications for a professional class of politicians, it also builds 
up the tools for replacing them. For the most part, their efforts have so far 
been focused on education and entertainment, but it’s only a matter of time 
before they turn to politics. And when they do, professional politicians beware! 

April 18, 2012 





In his new book, The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris 
Hayes manages the impossible trifecta: the book is compellingly readable, 
impossibly erudite, and — most stunningly of all — correct. At the end, I 
was left with just two quibbles: first, the book’s chapter on “pop epistemology” 
thoroughly explicated how elites got stuff wrong without bothering to mention 
the non-elites who got things right, leaving the reader with the all-too- 
common impression that getting it right was impossible; and second, the 
book never assembled its (surprisingly sophisticated) argument into a single 
summary. To discuss it, I feel we have to start with remedying the latter flaw: 

Our nation’s institutions have crumbled, Hayes argues. From 2000-2010 
(the “Fail Decade”), every major societal institution failed. Big businesses 
collapsed with Enron and Worldcom, their auditors failed to catch it, the 
Supreme Court got partisan in Bush v. Gore, our intelligence apparatus failed 
to catch 9/11, the media lied us into wars, the military failed to win them, 
professional sports was all on steroids, the church engaged in and covered 
up sex abuse, the government compounded disaster upon disaster in Katrina, 
and the banks crashed our economy. How did it all go so wrong? 

Hayes pins the blame on an unlikely suspect: meritocracy. We thought we 
would just simply pick out the best and raise them to the top, but once they 
got there they inevitably used their privilege to entrench themselves and 
their kids (inequality is, Hayes says,“autocatalytic”). Opening up the elite to 
more efficient competition didn’t make things more fair, it just legitimated a 
more intense scramble. The result was an arms race among the elite, pushing 
all of them to embrace the most unscrupulous forms of cheating and fraud 
to secure their coveted positions. As competition takes over at the high end, 
personal worth resolves into exchange value, and the elite power accumulated 
in one sector can be traded for elite power in another: a regulator can become 
a bank VP, a modern TV host can use their stardom to become a bestselling 
author (try to imagine Edward R. Murrow using the nightly news to flog 
his books the way Bill O’Reilly does). This creates a unitary elite, detached 
from the bulk of society, yet at the same time even more insecure. You can 



never reach the pinnacle of the elite in this new world; even if you have the 
most successful TV show, are you also making blockbuster movies? bestselling 
books? winning Nobel Prizes? When your peers are the elite at large, you 
can never clearly best them. 

The result is that our elites are trapped in a bubble, where the usual pointers 
toward accuracy (unanimity, proximity, good faith) only lead them astray. 
And their distance from the way the rest of the country really lives makes it 
impossible for them to do their jobs justly — they just don’t get the necessary 
feedback. The only cure is to reduce economic inequality, a view that has 
surprisingly support among the population (clear majorities want to close 
the deficit by raising taxes on the rich, which is more than can be said for any 
other plan). And while Hayes is not a fan of heightening the contradictions, 
it is possible that the next crisis will bring with it the opportunity to win 
this change. 

This is just a skeletal summary — the book itself is filled with luscious texture 
to demonstrate each point and more in-depth discussion of the mechanics 
of each mechanism (I would call it Elster meets Gladwell if I thought that 
would be taken as praise). So buy the book already 1 . Now, as I said, I think 
Hayes is broadly correct in his analysis. And I think his proposed solution is 
spot on as well — when we were fellows together at the Harvard Center for 
Ethics, I think we annoyed everyone else with our repeated insistence that 
reducing economic inequality was somehow always the appropriate solution 
to each of the many social ills the group identified. 

But when talking to other elites about this proposal, I notice a confusion 
that’s worth clarifying, about the structural results of inequality, rather than 
the merely quantitative ones. Class hangs over the book like a haunting 
spectre (there’s a brief comment on p. 148 that “Mills [had] a more nuanced 
theory of elite power than Marx’s concept of a ruling class”) but I think it’s 
hard to see how the solution relates to the problem without it. After all, we 
started by claiming the problem is meritocracy, but somehow the solution 
is taxing the rich? 

The clue comes in thinking clearly about the alternative to meritocracy. It’s 
not picking surgeons by lottery, Hayes clarifies, but then what is it? It’s about 
ameliorating power relationships altogether. Meritocracy says “there must be 



one who rules, so let it be the best”; egalitarianism responds “why must there?” 
It’s the power imbalance, rather than inequality itself, that’s the problem. 

Imagine a sci-fi world in which productivity has reached such impressive 
heights that everyone can have every good they desire just from the work 
young kids do for fun. By twiddling the knobs on their local MakerBot, 
the kids produce enough food, clothing, and iPhones to satisfy everyone. 
So instead of working, most people spend their days doing yoga or fishing. 
But scarcity hasn’t completely faded away — there’s still competition for the 
best spots at the fishing hole. So we continue to let those be allocated by the 
market: the fishing hole spot is charged for and the people who really want 
it earn the money to pay for it by helping people with various chores. 

In this sort of world, inequality doesn’t seem like much of a problem. Sure, 
some people get the best fishing hole spots, but that’s because they did the 
most chores. If you want the spot more than they do, you can do more work. 
But the inequality doesn’t come with power — the guy with the best fishing 
hole spot can’t say “fuck me or you’re fired” 2 . 

This sci-fi world may sound ridiculous, but it’s basically the one Keynes 
predicted 3 we’d soon be living in: 

Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be 
insatiable. But they fall into two classes - those needs which are absolute 
in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow 
human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we 
feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior 
to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire 
for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, 
the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs - a 
point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us 
aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to 
devote our further energies to non-economic purposes. 

[. . .] But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. 
Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that 
there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from 
whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. 



And that’s what a reduction in economic inequality could achieve. The 
trend in recent decades (since the fall of the Soviet Union and the ruling 
class’s relief that “There Is No Alternative”) has been for the people at the 
top to seize all the economic gains, leaving everyone else increasing insecure 
and dependent on their largesse. (Calling themselves “job creators”, on this 
view, is not so much a brag as a threat.) But with less inequality, it could be 
otherwise. Instead of a world in which there are a handful of big networks 
with the money to run television shows, everyone could afford to have their 
Sunday morning conversations 4 filmed and livestreamed. Instead of only huge 
conglomerates having the capital and distribution to launch new product 
lines, everyone could make and market their own line of underwear 5 or video 
games (instead of just elite Red Sox pitchers 6 ). 

Even on strict efficiency grounds, this strikes me as a more alluring view 
than the usual meritocracy. Why put all your eggs in one basket, even if it’s 
the best basket? Surely you’d get better results by giving more baskets a try. 

You can argue that this is exactly where technology is bringing us — popular 
kids on YouTube get made into huge pop sensations, right? — and the genius 
of Hayes’book is to show us why this is not enough. The egaliatarian demand 
shouldn’t be that we need more black pop stars or female pop stars or YouTube 
sensation pop stars, but to question why we need elite superstars at all. I hope 
Hayes’ next book shows us what the world without them is like. 

June 20 , 2012 

1 . 

2 . 

3 . 
grandchildren . htm 



6 . 
rhode island out of 75 million .html 




My friend Jonathan Zittrain has been working on a book about how the 
return of piece-work will destroy America. As someone who kind of misses 
piece-work, it made me want to think through the issues involved. 

Because, in the real world, competition is imperfect, when a company sells 
something it earns a surplus. That surplus then must be divided between 
capital and labor, or more concretely, the company and the employee. The 
terms of distribution are determined by the employment agreement (i.e. how 
much the employee will get paid). 

If labor has all the power, it will want almost all of the surplus, so it’d 
demand an employee agreement where it gets paid a big chunk per good 
produced — this is basically piece-work. If capital has all the power, it will 
want to pay employees barely enough to stay alive and be able to show up 
for work — this is basically wages. So, to a first approximation, wages are 
what you get when capital is in charge and piece-work is what you get when 
labor is in charge. 

But there are some additional considerations. The transaction costs for 
capital are relatively low — you can invest in a whole bunch of companies 
at a time, whereas you can really only do a couple jobs at a time (or usually 
just one) and it’s quite painful to find another one. So employees also want 
insurance — they want to guarantee they’ll keep getting paid even when 
the market for the stuff they produce declines. Again, we can imagine two 
extremes: iflabor is in charge, it’ll want ajob for life, where getting downsized 
is inconceivable; if capital is in charge, it’ll want to employ people for exactly 
as long as their marginal product is profitable — which means staffing up in 
booms and downsizing freely in busts (and not just business cycle booms and 
busts — companies want to hire lots of temporary workers for Christmas, 
for example). 

Now obviously a job for life doesn’t make a ton of sense in a piece-work 
world. If AT&T has guaranteed you a job for life with steady wages, then 



it makes sense for it to invest in retraining you for some different part of 
the business when mechanical telephone switches get replaced by computer 
servers. It’s less clear how this would work in a piece-work deal. But the fact is 
there’s no reason the insurance part should be tied to the wages. In Denmark, 
for example, if your job disappears the government simply pays you 90% of 
your old salary until you find a new one (up to some cap, of course). There’s 
no reason piece-work can’t coexist with this kind of social insurance system, 
which would seem to be the choice of our all-powerful labor. 

But that’s treating labor as a monolithic entity. The third thing wages do is 
collapse differences in pay between workers. For example, it’s well established 
that programmer productivity varies by an order of magnitude — the best 
programmers at a company can be ten times as productive as the worst 
programmers — but I’ve never heard of a company where programmer pay 
varies by anywhere near that much. Really great programmers might be paid 
double or perhaps even triple the worst programmers, but I’ve never heard 
of anything close to a lOx difference. 

The one place where you do see these really huge differences is in CEO 
pay, but even this isn’t really a counterexample since CEO is a job with no 
intra-company reference class. That is, it’s not like companies will have one 
CEO getting paid J1.2M and a another getting paid $12M (indeed, I’d guess 
companies with co-CEOs find them getting paid the same amount) — instead, 
the order- of- magnitude differences are all found across companies. 

But order- of- magnitude differences are totally possible with piece-work, 
especially the kind of intellectual piece-work that Zittrain is concerned with. 
Krugman has bragged that he “writes faster than anyone in journalism” and 
it’s quite possible to imagine him turning out columns in a tenth the time 
of Barbara Ehrenreich (who turned down the NYT op-ed columnist job 
because it was too time-consuming). So wages might be a way of quietly 
redistributing money from the speedy Krugmans to the dawdling Ehrenreichs. 
But just as with social insurance, you can imagine this role being taken up by 
the government instead: through progressive taxation. 

Now according to classic economic theory, these changes wouldn’t just 
be details of style, but would increase the size of the overall pie. And, on 
the squishy side, they’d provide much greater scope for human freedom. 



Assuming I was guaranteed a decent wage either way, I’d far rather be able 
to stay up late working one night in exchange for blowing off work the next. 
Not to mention getting to work the hours I want, from the place I want, in 
the way I want, etc. 

Now the practical fact is that most jobs don’t have a concrete enough product 
to be amenable to piece-work. They’re a mixture of all sorts of different tasks, 
require interaction with a specific group of other people, and have all sorts of 
other features that kind of force them to be your usual office job. But none 
of that applies to Zittrain — he’s talking about jobs that are already piece- 
work and arguing that they shouldn’t be. But it seems to me like, if you’re 
on the side of labor, your preferred solution should be more social insurance 
and progressive taxation instead. 

July 5, 2012 




In his brilliant book Awkwardness, Adam Kotsko analyzes the US version 
of the television show The Office, concluding it, unlike its British counterpart, 
shies away from the emancipatory potential of awkwardness by concluding 
it’s ultimately the result of inherently awkward individuals. 

As his key example, he cites the arc of Charles Miner {The Wire’s Idris 
Elba), a high-powered Dunder Mifflin executive who visits the Scranton 
branch for a short while as part of his attempts to improve northeast sales. 
Miner’s arrival forces Jim into a series of awkward comic mishaps, thus 
suggesting Jim’s normal level of cool isn’t just because he’s a naturally cool 
person but only because he’s particularly well-suited to his normal situation. 
But Miner ultimately reveals himself to be overly aggressive, thereby, Kotsko 
argues, showing Jim’s awkwardness was merely a result of Miner being a 
fundamentally awkward person and thus withdrawing the tentative suggestion 
that awkwardness might actually be situational. 

I think this is a misreading that shows the limits of a theory of awkwardness 
that lacks a notion of competence. For this arc shows precisely the opposite of 
what Kotsko says it does: it shows that awkwardness is fundamentally situational. 

Miner’s addition to the series marks the rare appearance of a character that 
is more competent than Jim. However much Jim may feel himself above the 
petty stressors of the Scranton office, Miner is far above that, executing with 
a similar level of suave at a much higher rung in the organization. When Jim 
comes face-to-face with a superior talent, it immediately reduces him to the 
level of gibbering awkwardness his coworkers are always finding themselves 
in, thereby demonstrating Jim’s level of comfort isn’t an innate character 
trait, but simply the result of being well-adapted to his absurd environment. 

The reveal of Miner’s aggression is not an undercutting but an emphasis of 
this theme. How did Miner get to be so cool? Was he just born with even more 
innate coolness than Jim and thus is able to be awkward in fewer situations? 
On the contrary, this coda reveals. Miner got to where he is through an 



aggressive ambition. His relentless striving has forced him to be competent 
in more and more business situations so he can move up the corporate ladder. 

The Office operates under a sort of Peter Principle 1 of awkwardness. The Peter 
Principle says employees are promoted to the level of their incompetence 
(since as long as they remain competent, they keep getting promoted). The 
Office demonstrates that being incompetent is awkward, so people are thereby 
promoted to the level of their awkwardness. Thus Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), 
who is actually a quite talented and thoroughly comfortable salesman, gets 
promoted to regional manager, where he is an awkward and incompetent dolt. 
We can only assume that Miner is normally at the level of his awkwardness as 
well; he only seems cool when slumming it in Scranton, the same way that Jim 
only gets to seem cool by being unambitious enough to persist in a job he is 
obviously too good for. It is our ambition that makes us awkward, the show argues. 

This is emphasized in the later plot where David Wallace (Andy Buckley), 
who appears as a confident corporate CFO in earlier seasons, gets made 
redundant in Dunder Mifflin’s acquisition by Sabre and is forced to retire to his 
suburban mansion with his generous severance package. Without a corporate 
ladder to climb but with his ambition intact, he now finds himself working 
on a startup (producing a vacuum for children’s toys called “Suck It”). But his 
competence as an upper executive is worthless as a startup founder and makes 
him so painfully awkward that even Michael can’t stomach it. (Later, when 
Wallace returns to the corporate world, he’s immediately unawkward again.) 

The clear message is the opposite of Kotsko’s reading: we are all awkward 
when we’re out of our depth; our only escape from awkwardness is to develop 
a competence for a particular situation. But even that is short-lived: our 
ambition will drive us to leave such non-awkward comforts for the next 
challenge — and even if we don’t, the vagaries of economic forces may still 
push us into a role we are ill-suited for. The only refuge from this pervasive 
awkwardness is the pervasive boredom of unambition. 

P.S. Kotsko’s followup, Why We Love Sociopaths is even better. 

July 23, 2012 

1 . https : / / en .wikipedia . org/wiki/Peter_Principle 





Warning: Naturally, spoilers follow — for both Batman Begins aWThe Dark 
Knight Rises. 1 

We begin in the 1980s, when the global forces of evil have decided to 
institute a new economic policy on the world. Their nefarious plan dramatically 
exacerbates inequality, making the rich filthy rich while the poor suffer terrible 
levels of unemployment. 

The difference is that in the Batman universe, Gotham’s leading billionaire 
(Thomas Wayne) can’t stand the suffering and begins investing in the city 
when the government won’t. He builds a giant Keynesian supertrain in a 
desperate attempt to get the city back to work. But, in an ironic twist, he 
ends up murdered by one of the desperate poverty-stricken citizens he’s 
trying so hard to help. 

The murder of the billionaire shocks the surviving billionaires, leading them 
to reverse their neoliberal policies. Instead of getting tough on crime, they 
decide to indulge criminals, with a deep willingness to treat criminality as 
merely a mental health problem. 

As the billionaires retreat from power, organized crime steps in, taking 
their place in buying off judges and unions and cops. Instead of being run by 
Wayne Enterprises, the city ends up being run by mob boss Carmine Falcone. 

But a few rogue elements in the police and DA’s office refuse to be bought 
off. They free the man who murdered Thomas Wayne in exchange for his 
testimony against Falcone. Bruce Wayne, the billionaire’s son, is so haunted by 
his personal demons that he can’t stand this trade-off. When his childhood- 
friend-turned-rogue-ADA points out the selfishness of his position, he 
confronts Falcone. When Falcone explains that Bruce will always live in 
fear of what he does not understand, Bruce sets off on a quest to understand 



His search concludes in a far eastern terrorist training camp, which turns 
out to be backed by the same global forces of evil that invented neoliberalism. 
It’s the year 2000 and they have a new plan: attacking Gotham with the hope 
of inspiring enough fear that the city will destroy itself. 2 

Bruce, still haunted by the execution of his parents, refuses to become an 
executioner himself and, instead of joining the plot, sets fire to the camp before 
returning to clean up Gotham his own way. He begins by putting together a 
case against Falcone and re-seizing control of Wayne Enterprises by buying 
up its shares on the public market. 

In doing so, he begins a reversal of history that eventually culminates in 
The Dark Knight Rises. His attack on Falcone leads to a new era of tough- 
on-crime, which dethrones the organized criminals and allows the wealthy 
to seize power again. The wealthy quickly reinstitute neoliberalism and buy 
back Bruce’s shares on the public market, putting Wayne Enterprises back 
in their hands. But the global forces of evil step in once again to “restore 
balance” by letting Bane to release the organized criminals. 3 Bruce Wayne 
goes back to being an innocent child of privilege and the trilogy ends exactly 
where it started. 4 

August 22, 2012 

1. Batman Begins is very clearly the mirror image of The Dark 
Knight Rises (some scenes are almost word-for-word the same), so 
understanding one can help us understand the other. 

2. Yes, in this trilogy 9/11 really was an inside job, from the same 
folks who brought you Reaganomics. 

3. Democrats, Republicans, organized crime, or billionaire 
financiers - whoever tries to seize power, the global forces of evil 
continue to hold the reins from behind-the-scenes, making sure nobody 
changes the system too much. 

4. Exactly, right down to how Robin (who see as a small boy in the first 
film, the same way we see Bruce in flashbacks) ends the film frustrated 
by the system (the same way Bruce was frustrated by Rachel) and is 
about to head out in a quest of his own, following the same path 
Bruce Wayne took. Thus the cycle continues. 




Spoilers, obviously. 

As we’ve discussed, in Batman Begins 1 1960s-style full employment and 
antipoverty programs lead to skyrocketing crime while in The Dark Knight 
Rises 1980s-style tough-on-crime policies and neoliberal economics lead to 
a revolt of the economic underclass. The films are mirror images, one about 
the failure of liberal policies; the other about the failure of conservative 
policies. In this sense, The Dark Knight is truly the final film in this nihilistic 
trilogy, documenting the hopelessness of anything outside that usual left- 
right struggle. 

From the start, the city is torn about how to handle the Batman, who 
has inspired a wave of second-rate imitators. Some believe it’s wrong to be 
idolizing a masked vigilante, but most (including the new DA, Harvey Dent) 
approve of his results. 

Dent is doing his own part to lock up the criminals, working inside the 
system. He’s arrested all the mob bankers (except Lau) and is now going after 
the gangsters themselves, starting with mob boss Maroni (who took over 
for mob boss Falcone). But while the prosecutions bring him a great deal of 
political attention, they don’t seem to achieve much in the way of concrete 
results — new gangsters spring up to take the place of whoever Dent arrests. 

Dent decides the only way to win is to go big — really big. He arrests 
everyone at once, on charges that are unlikely to stick. Dent doesn’t care that 
he’s breaking the rules, as long as it solves the problem. He cites the Romans 
who suspended democracy to protect their city. (Although, as Rachel points 
out, they ended up losing democracy.) “You either die a hero or you live long 
enough to see yourself become the villain,” Dent explains. He hopes to take 
up Batman’s mantle, but do it from inside the system. 

But, as the mayor explains, Dent isn’t just taking on his own sense of 
ethics, he’s taking on the entire system: “the mob, politicians, journalists, 



cops — anyone whose wallet’s about to get lighter”. If he fails, both of their 
careers are over. 

Just as Dent is frustrated with the justice system, the Joker is frustrated 
with the criminals. He tells them they need to go big: they need to kill the 
Batman. He offers to do it for a sizable sum of money, which the gangsters 
eventually agree to. The Joker is obsessed with the homo economicus of game 
theory (from whence his name?): when the gangsters ask why he needs the 
money to kill the Batman, he explains “Like my mother used to tell me: if 
you’re good at something, never do it for free.” 

The film opens with the Joker hiring five men to rob a mob bank: Dopey 
silences the alarm, Happy shoots him and drills through the vault, Grumpy 
shoots him and empties the cash into duffel bags, a bus runs him over, Bozo 
shoots the bus driver. Finally, Bozo pulls off his mask to reveal he’s the Joker. 
This is a classic pirate game and, just as in the theory, the Joker gets to keep 
almost all the cash. 

Batman eventually tries to track down the Joker by threatening the gangster 
Maroni. But it’s no use, as Maroni explains: “No one’s gonna tell you 
anything — they’re wise to your act — you got rules. The Joker, he’s got no 
rules. No one’s gonna cross him for you. ’’This is a straightforward application 
of game theory’s Davies-Folk theorem: the rational thing is to seem irrational 
so your opponents can’t count on you doing the rational thing. 

Alfred sees this quickly, because it reminds him of a story from his own past: 

I was in Burma. A long time ago. My friends and I were working 
for the local government. They were trying to buy the loyalty of tribal 
leaders, bribing them with precious stones. But their caravans were being 
raided in a forest north of Rangoon by a bandit. We were asked to take 
care of the problem, so we started looking for the stones. But after six 
months, we couldn’t find anyone who had traded with him. . . . One day 
I found a child playing with a ruby as big as a tangerine. . . . The bandit 
had been throwing the stones away. . . . Some men just want to watch the 
world burn. 

Note the parallels. In Alfred’s story the entire status quo (including the local 



government and tribal leaders) is totally corrupt: the official plan is to bribe 
people. But the plan is defeated by someone even crazier, someone willing to 
steal the money but not interested in keeping it for himself. 

Sure enough, when the Joker finally does get his hands on the money, he 
merely lights it on fire. 

Meanwhile, Dent’s ethical compromises begin to grow and grow. When 
he kidnaps one of the Joker’s thugs, he tries to threaten information out of 
him. This is something Batman does routinely, but Batman reminds Dent 
that Dent can’t get away with that sort of thing — it’d destroy his credibility 
as an insider. 

In a climactic scene, the Batman finally confronts the Joker in the middle 
of the street. The Joker knows Batman lives by just one rule (“I will not be 
an executioner”) and encourages him to break it and kill him. But Batman 
can’t bring himself to do it, he swerves at a key moment and ends up smashed 
while the Joker survives. (Yep: the Joker has just won the game of chicken.) 

When he comes to, the Joker tells Batman that despite nominally working 
outside the system, he’s actually just the system’s pawn: 

To them you’re a freak like me. They just need you right now. . . . But as 
soon as they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper. . . . Their morals, their 
code. . . it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only 
as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see — I’ll show you. . . 

You have these rules. And you think they’ll save you. . . . [But t]he only 
sensible way to live in this world is without rules. 

Gordon arrests the Joker and takes him to the major crimes unit, only to find 
the Joker claiming Gordon does not actually control the unit — his people 
actually working for mob boss Maroni. “Does it depress you, Lieutenant, to 
know how alone you are?” he asks (a classic principal-agent problem 1 ). 

The Joker has kidnapped both Dent and Rachel and set them both to blow 
so that Batman can only rescue one (opportunity cost 2 ). Batman goes to rescue 
Rachel but the Joker has switched their addresses and he actually ends up 



rescuing Dent 3 . Rachel dies and Dentloses half his face, becoming Two-Face. 

Reese, one of Bruce Wayne’s employees goes on TV and threatens to reveal 
the identity of the Batman, but the Joker calls in and asks him to stop. “I had 
a vision,” he says. “Of a world without Batman. The mob ground out a little 
profit and the police tried to shut them down, one block at a time. . . and it was 
so. . . boring. I’ve had a change of heart.” He threatens to blow up a hospital 
unless someone kills Reese. (He has thus constructed a trolley problem 4 : 
people must decide whether it’s better to let the 100 die or kill the 1.) 

At the hospital, the Joker explains things to Dent: 

Do I really look like a guy with a plan, Harvey? I don’t have a plan. . . 
The mob has plans, the cops have plans. . . . Maroni has plans. Gordon 
has plans. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I 
show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really 

It’s the schemers who put you where you are. You were a schemer. You 
had plans. Look where it got you. . . . Nobody panics when the expected 
people get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even 
if the plan is horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger 
will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics. 
Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor 
will die, everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you 
upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent 
of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? . . . It’s fair. 

This pushes Dent over the edge. He starts going after everyone responsible 
for killing Rachel: He starts with Weurtz, who kidnapped him. Weurtz gives 
up Maroni, who points to Ramirez, who helps him get Gordon’s family, who 
naturally gets Gordon. 

Batman, meanwhile, is also crossing lines. In his attempt to find the Joker, 
he has turned every cell phone into a spy device. Even he admits this might 
be too much power for one man to have. 

The Joker scares the city onto its two ferries. Once the ferries are in the 



middle of the water, he cuts their power and gives them both a button to 
blow up the other ferry, thereby constructing a prisoner’s dilemma 5 (one 
boat is filled with real prisoners). The passengers discuss and vote. One of 
the prisoners makes a Ulysses pact 6 and credibly commits 7 by tossing the 
detonator overboard. 

The Joker also took a busload of people from the hospital to the Prewitt 
Building where, through the window, you can see Joker’s thugs with guns 
holding hospital people hostage. Gordon rushes in to get the thugs, but 
Batman discovers the thugs are hostages and the hostages are the thugs. 
(The Joker is illustrating “The Market for Lemons” 8 : if the Joker is making 
it easy for you to kill his henchmen, why should you believe they’re actually 
his henchmen?) 

(Batman saves the hostages (dressed as thugs) and stops the SWAT team 
and takes out the thugs (dressed as hostages). Neither of the boats decides to 
blow up the other and Batman prevents the Joker from triggering the failsafe.) 

He then goes to rescue Gordon, who is trying to stop Dent from killing his 
family. Dent explains his new philosophy: 

You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time. You thought 
we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not 
break. . , 9 you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a 
cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair. 

Throughout the film, we’ve seen various desperate attempts to change the 
system by ignoring the usual rules: Batman originally thought he could inspire 
change by being a cultural exemplar, but only ended up causing a bunch of 
kids to get themselves hurt by dressing up as him. Dent thought he could 
clean up the system by pushing righteously from the inside, but ended up 
cutting more and more ethical corners until his own personal obsessions 
ended up making him a monster. The Joker had by far the most interesting 
plan: he hoped to out-corrupt the corrupters, to take their place and give the 
city “a better class of criminal”. 

And the crazy thing is that it works! At the end of the movie, the Joker is 
alive, the gangsters and their money launderers are mostly dead, and their 



money has been redistributed (albeit though the deflationary method of 
setting it on fire). And, as we see from the beginning of the third movie, 
this is a fairly stable equilibrium: with politicians no longer living in fear of 
the gangsters, they’re free to adopt tough anti-crime policies that keep them 
from rising again . 10 

The movie concludes by emphasizing that Batman must become the villain, 
but as usual it never stops to notice that the Joker is actually the hero. But 
even though his various games only have one innocent casualty, he’s much 
too crazy to be a viable role model for Batman. His inspired chaos destroys 
the criminals, but it also terrorizes the population. Thanks to Batman, society 
doesn’t devolve into a self-interested war of all-against-all, as he apparently 
expects it to, but that doesn’t mean anyone enjoys the trials. 

Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it’s no wonder 
the series ends with his staged suicide. 

November 1, 2012 

1. I'm actually not sure which game this is supposed to be. It's a bit 
like the poisoned goblets game in The Princess Bride, but I can't find 
a name for it in the literature. 

2 . 

3 . 

4. These two sentences are in the shooting script but got cut from the 
film version: "You thought we could lead by example. You thought the 
rules could be bent but not break..." 

5 . 

6 . http : / / en .wikipedia . org/wiki/Prisoner ' s_dilemma 

7 . 

8 . 

9 . 

10. This also explains why the law-and-order crowd seems so miffed about 
succeeding - it wasn't actually their policies that succeeded. 





It cant happen here. That’s what most scientists will tell you about fraud in 
science. Science is magically self-correcting, fraudsters are isolated incidents, 
fraud is something that happens in those other professions. Well, they’re all 
wrong, as Horace Freeland Judson shows in his new book 7 he Great Betrayal: 
Fraud in Science. While estimates of fraud — faking evidence, omitting or 
distorting evidence, and plagiarism — are naturally hard to come by, even 
very conservative studies place it as high as 10% — a staggering number to 
those who place their trust in Science. 

Judson is at various times a historian, philosopher, sociologist, journalist, and 
student of science, but he combines all this into a detailed book that combines 
the best of each field — the journalism is thrilling and readable, the science 
accurate, the history and social causes analyzed, and so on. Judson seems to 
know everything about the subject — he’s at every major event, he interviews 
every major figure at their home, and so on. The result is a through book. 

The book traces the cultural context of fraud, analyzes the history of fraud 
(Mendel, Darwin, Pasteur, Freud — all committed fraud to some extent), 
gives a very detailed description of many modern cases of fraud (including a 
whole chapter on the famed “Baltimore affair”), then discusses the problems 
of peer review and authorship, which most people think prevent fraud, then 
onto the future of science with open access publications on the Internet, and 
closing with how institutions can respond to end fraud. 

Judson paints a picture of a scientific community that is trapped in its own 
sense of infallibility. Whistleblowers brings evidence fraud to the university 
president and he (almost always a he) brushes them off saying “it doesn’t 
happen here.” And anyway, science is self-correcting. The whistleblower goes 
public and gets fired — they’re inventing a fuss, tarnishing the name of the 
university. The government’s Office of Research Integrity investigates and 
concludes it is fraud but the case is appealed to a board of lawyers who don’t 
understand the science, are not allowed to look at the scientific evidence, and 
almost always overturn the case, making specious arguments like “if this data 



was fraudulent, it wouldn’t look so messy”. Even in the rare case when fraud 
is generally conceded, all the usual figures trot out the usual “few bad apples” 
claim — the rest of science is just fine, they say. When Congress dares hold 
hearings on the matter, the scientists being questioned rile up their colleagues 
by claiming that government is attacking scientific freedom. 

So, in the end, the whistleblower ends up disgraced and unemployed, 
usually viciously attacked in public. The fraudster might have to go to another 
university or even retire early if it’s really bad. And the department head who 
let it happen under him gets no blame and so has no incentive to change 
things. And so fraud goes on, uninvestigated, unimpeded. 

What’s the fraud like? A few examples: 

• William T. Summerlin (chief of transplantation immunology at 
Sloan-Kettering) claimed he could transplant onto animals corneas, 
glands, and skin that would normally be rejected — sometimes even 
across species. He was discovered only after three years of this when 
a lab assistant noticed that the black “skin graphs” were drawn on 
with a marker (all the rest of his work turned out to be fake as well). 

• John Long (a resident) studied Hodgkins’s cell lines at Mass General 
in collaboration with MIT. A year later, a junior colleague charge 
fraud and it was discovered that the cell lines were from monkeys 
and healthy people. 

• Elias A. K. Alsabti (a researcher at Boston University) had published 
sixty papers by his mid-twenties, when it turned out that most of 
them were papers published in obscure foreign journals with only 
slight changes (like a new title). 

• Vijay Soman, an assistant professor at Yale, was asked to peer review 
a paper by Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard. He sent back a negative 
review, delaying publication, then turned around and submitted 

the same paper to another journal. He was found out when, in an 
amazing twist of fate, Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard was asked to peer 
review Soman’s paper and recognized it as her own. 



• John Darsee had published dozens of papers with completely made 
up data — and done an incredibly bad job making up the data. (One 
paper claimed a father had four children — conceived when he was 
8, 9, 11, and 12 years old, respectively.) To cover up this fact, Darsee 
had practiced “gift authorship” — adding people as co-authors even 
when they didn’t do any work. Darsee had been at Harvard for three 
years before he was discovered by some postdocs, even then it took 
the university five months to admit the fraud. 

• Stephen Breuning (University of Pittsburgh) studied the long-term 
effects of certain tranquilizers on mentally ill patients. His research 
found they were seriously damaging the patients and it causes mental 
hospitals to change procedures. Two years later, Breuning s mentor at the 
University of Illinois began to suspect that Breuning couldn’t possibly 
have time to do all the work he claimed to be doing. — and sure 
enough he made it up. Sparague (the senior of the two, remember) sent 
a report to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which 
funded Breuning. Breuning was forced to resign and NIMH appointed 
an investigator — who proceed to investigate Sprague. Seeing that 
Breuning s work was not being investigated and corrected, Sprague went 
public. His federal funding was cancelled. Sprague was asked to testify 
before Congress, in response the University of Pittsburgh threatened a 
libel suit. 

That’s a small sample — the cases go on and on. Kudos to Judson for 
shedding light on a topic few know even exists. 

March 14, 2005 





David M. Clark, head of psychology at King’s College in the UK, has 
come to talk to us about anxiety disorders. Unlike the stuff from the normal 
introductory psychology lectures, Clark seems very smart and science-minded. 
He’s done research developing “cognitive therapy” for anxiety, which means 
using discussion and experiments to get people to stop feeling anxious, as 
opposed to drugs or other more “direct” methods. 

The specific technique, it turns out, basically involves proving to the patient 
that their fears are irrational. People who suffer from panic attacks, it turns out, 
are actually more sensitive to their heart beats than other people. They notice 
perfectly normal phenomena, like the heart skipping a beat, and interpret it 
as the beginning of a heart attack, which then of course makes them anxious. 
They behave in various “safety behaviors”, like lying down or breathing deeply, 
to stave off the heart attack, which of course goes away (because it isn’t real). 

The therapy consists of proving to the patient that these aren’t really heart 
attacks. First, you point out that no one can survive 40,000 heart attacks (the 
number of panic attacks the patient may have had) — at most they get one or 
two. Then you ask them to think of times they thought they were having an 
attack and they got distracted — say, the phone rang with important news. 
Recall how the panic attack went away? Heart attacks don’t just go away. 
After showing the attacks can be eliminated, you show the attacks can be 
induced, by asking the patient to read a series of trigger words (“breathless, 
chest tight, dying, suffocate, heart attack”). Finally, you gradually have the 
patient bring on the attacks without doing their safety behaviors. Eventually, 
they realize the attacks aren’t real. 

The technique above is specific to panic disorders, but the same principles 
can be applied to any sort of anxiety. It’s sort of surprising how common 
sense it all seems. Indeed, Clark’s “tips for dealing with anxiety” are exactly 
the ones my mother used when I was scared or shy: 

1. Identify the fear. What am I afraid will happen? What’s the worst 



that could happen?” [My mother was always asking this; it did help.] 

2. Challenge negative thoughts. How likely is it? What would be so bad 
about that? Is there an alternative explanation? How would someone 
else think? How will I be in X months time? 

3. Prepare. 

4. Repeated practice. 

Is this technique effective? Clark tells an incredible story. There is a standard 
psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome: you have the 
person who suffered some sort of stress discuss the incident with a therapist. 
After 9/11, for example, thousands of therapists discussed the incident with 
victims. And if you measure the number of traumatic flashbacks the patients 
have, they go down after the debriefing (from about 36 to about 32, according 
to Clark’s slide, which cites “Mayou, Ehlers & Hobbs, 2000”). And the 
patients love it — the thank the therapists, send flowers, gush about how 
helpful they’ve been, etc. 

But is that enough? I am reminded of a story, quoted by Edward Tufte, 
from Dr. E. E. Peacock, Jr.: 

One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston 
surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of 
patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction. 
At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly 
asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up 
to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on 
half the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of 
the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the 
visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would 
have doomed half of them to their death.” God, it was quiet then, and one 
could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?” 

(Dr. E. E. Peacock, Jr., University of Arizona College of Medicine; quoted 
in Medical World News (September 1, 1972), p. 45, as quoted by Tufte) 

So, you may now ask, what about the other half — the people who suffered 
traumatic incidents but were not debriefed. Well, their number of traumatic 
flashbacks fell too. But while those who were debriefed fell from 36 to 32, 



those who were not debriefed fell from 31 to 9. 9. 

In other words, for decades we’ve been dooming people who have suffered 
traumatic incidents to relive them over and over under the guise of helping 
them. I mean, [I knew psychology was bad], but still. . . 

So how do Clark’s treatments stack up under the gold standard — randomized 
controlled trials (where you decide which half gets help randomly)? 

Well, one typical solution — a Swedish deep breathing exercise — works 
in 25% of cases. Another, pills, works in 40% of cases. But the problem with 
pills is that they stop working as soon as you stop taking them. Cognitive 
therapy is a relatively quick series of five one-hour sessions and then it’s over. 
So even if it did worse that pills, it might still be a worthwhile treatment. 

But it does better than pills — much better. Cognitive therapy essentially 
cures people in 80% of cases. It does this with panic disorders, social phobias 
(extreme shyness), etc. And the cures last for years. 

All in all, Clark’s talk was an exciting vindication for the field — it showed 
how a scientific approach can really help people in concrete ways. And it was 
heartening to see there were some hardworking, rational people out there. 
Which is why it’s sort of ironic that at the core of Clark’s method is teaching 
people to be more rational — helping them overcome irrational fears through 
logic and experiment. It’s almost as if science itself were the cure. 

March 26, 2005 




Neil Postman is generally considered a thoughtful liberal critic of technology 
and its deleterious effect on our culture. My friends praise his attacks on 
television and rethinking of education. But it’s hard for me to take him 
seriously after reading his The Disappearance of Childhood , in which he argues 
(p. 87) that television is bad because it teaches children homosexuality is 
normal and praises the Moral Majority as being the only group to realize 
this important truth. And true, he admits it’s an exaggeration to say “such 
a situation necessarily and categorically signifies cultural degeneration”, he 
does insist it clearly “poses dangers”. 

Postman’s argument is that childhood is the creation of the printing press, 
which led to a culture in which learning to read was necessary to become an 
adult, and thus children became a separate group. In the same way, he argues, 
the emergence of television, which requires no special training to view, is 
destroying the distinction between children and adults and bringing us back 
to that pre-literate age. 

Not once does Postman ever explain why this should be considered a bad 
thing. Instead, his book simply assumes it’s obvious that we need to pretend 
to keep kids from naughty words (even though they know them anyway), that 
we need to make it hard for kids to learn about sex, that we need to pretend 
for them that political leaders are infallible, etc. 

One is almost tempted to believe the book is tounge-in-cheek, an impression 
assisted by the preface to the second edition — the only place where actual 
children are ever considered — which quotes letters Postman has received 
from students who have read portions of the book and disagree completely 
with his argument that childhood is disappearing. They don’t, however, criticize 
childhood itself, so Postman assumes they are in favor of it and praises them 
as “a force in preserving childhood”, a sort of “moral majority”. 

And this, in miniature, is the problem with the whole book. Postman 
investigates the history of childhood and modern thought, finding it a creation 



of the printing press, and thus a social and not a biological entity. But instead 
of investigating whether the result was good or bad, he simply ignores his 
own work and proceeds directly to assuming it must be good. What we are 
witnessing here is not the disappearance of childhood, but the disappearance 
of thought. 

January 28, 2006 





It all started, Seth Roberts says, when he wanted more practice doing 
experiments. The closest thing at hand was himself. He was trying to treat 
his acne and, although convinced that the pills were effective and the cream 
was not, he decided to chart their effectiveness anyway for practice. The 
results were the exact opposite of what he expected — the cream helped and 
the pills did not. His acne went away and Roberts went looking for bigger 
problems to solve. 

It’s obvious that sleep follows some sort of circular rhythm, an inner 
biological clock that makes us tired at the end of the day and refreshed at 
the beginning. This is the clock that gets thrown off when we travel and thus 
causes jet lag, for example. But what if other things mess with the clock than 
simply when we go to sleep? 

It wasn’t simply academic for Roberts, who frustrated from a serious bout of 
“early awakening”, in which he’d wake up around 4am feeling tired but unable 
to get back to sleep for another couple of hours. Roberts searched for a way 
to cure his problem but none of the standard methods seemed appropriate. 
So he decided to research the subject. 

A 1979 study of people in caves suggested that contact with other people 
affected when we fell asleep and a 1985 survey of daily activities in 12 countries 
led to another clue: Americans were much more often awake around midnight 
than people in any other country and the only distinguishing factor seemed 
to be late-night television. Perhaps, Roberts thought, watching television 
could influence sleeping rhythm? 

The most popular late-night television show at the time the study was done 
was the The Tonight Show, with its person-heavy monologue. So one morning 
Roberts decided to watch Jay Leno and David Letterman’s monologues. It 
seemed to have no impact; an otherwise normal day. But the next morning 
he woke up feeling great. 



It was hard to believe that the television show could be responsible, so 
Roberts decided to formalize the study. Every hour hed write down three 
numbers between 0 and 100 to measure how unhappy/happy, irritable/ serene, 
and reluctant/eager he was. And then he tried turning the TV watching on 
and off again to see if it impacted his mood. It did — he always felt better 
the next day. So he tried adjusting the show and television set, finding that, 
despite his love for The Simpsons, life-size human faces at about a meter away 
for 30 minutes worked best. 

I have to concede, at this point, that the results sound fairly absurd and 
unbelievable. But reading Roberts’s papers on the subject, what’s striking 
is how careful he is about the subject. An actual psychologist, publishing in 
psychologyjournals, he’s taken into account every objection. The results cannot 
be, as one would first expect, simply self-induced by his own wishes. For one, 
Roberts took quantitative notes, so his memory couldn’t be playing tricks 
on him. For another, the size of the difference was too large to be explained 
through normal explanations. If Roberts could simply will himself into waking 
up happy, why hadn’t he done it before? Nor could such an explanation 
explain the numbers ’s careful sensitivity to how similar the TV watching 
was to human face contact, especially since Roberts was originally hoping to 
be able to watch his favorite shows, not face-heavy ones like Charlie Rose. 

He also began noticing something he wasn’t expecting — his mood wasn’t 
just raised the next morning, it was lowered that night. This graph shows 
the pattern: 

Graph of mood over the 
course of 48 hours 
based on whether faces 
were seen or not 

Mood spikes up from 6am to noon, stays high during the day, and then takes 
a dive around 6pm. (When not seeing faces, mood stays flat.) 

And what about all those people who watched TV at night? Roberts 

TlfE-tf l.< If 



found that watching TV after 6pm also reduced mood, with the effect more 
pronounced the later it was watched. 

So what’s going on? If you look at faces in the morning, you feel worse 12 
hours later but better 24 hours later. But the effect is muted if you see faces in 
the evening. Roberts theorizes that your body is using the faces to set its inner 
mood clock, which works similarly to its inner tiredness clock. You want to 
be happy during the day (as opposed to the night), but how do you tell when 
the day starts? The body assumes that you gab with people when you wake up, 
so it uses seeing other faces as a way to synchronize the clock. Of course, you 
want to make sure you’ve got the timing right on the nighttime side as well, 
so if you see faces late in the evening it tries to tweak the clock then as well. 

This is consistent with what we know from other sources about depression. 
Depression is highly correlated with insomnia as well as social isolation 
and is often treated by disturbing sleep. The Amish, who eat breakfast 
communally and go to bed very early, have l/100th the rate of depression as 
other Americans. And depression rates increased by 10 times in the 1900s, 
around the same time radio/TV, electric lighting, and other such things 
became common. 

I’m hoping to get a chance to test this myself, but it sure appears that one 
easy way to improve mood is to look at faces in the morning. 

Of course, even more than mood (which is generally considered difficult to 
tweak) people want to improve their look. And Roberts has done research 
on this as well, concluding that the body uses a similar internal system to 
measure the ideal weight. The result is his Shangri-La Diet which uses similar 
techniques to trick the body’s internal system to cut down on appetite. His 
book on the subject, The Shangri-La Diet, comes out this week. It’s been 
hailed as a diet book unlike any other. More on that next time. 

April 23 , 2006 

1 . http : / / sethroberts . net/ self-experiment/ 

2 . http: / /books. 153640 




Anybody who’s ever read so much as a Malcolm Gladwell article or an 
Alfie Kohn book knows that science can be fascinating, that its attempts at 
answering our questions not only can have a real impact on our lives but are 
interesting in their own right. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place that 
reported these things? 

If this exists, please tell me — I’d love to read it. But if it doesn’t, I’d like to 
start one. Here’s the idea: 

We have a bunch of contributors, each of whom reads a variety of journals or 
journal summaries. When they come across an article that seems particularly 
interesting, they write up a one or two paragraph summary of the experiment 
and the findings aimed at an intelligent but generalist audience along with 
a link to the actual article. 

So here’s an example of what this might look like: 

Economists at Cornell and Indiana University tried to see if television 
causes autism. Thinking that rainfall could cause kids to watch more TV 
and thus induce autism, they looked at county-level data in California, 
Oregon, and Washington — states with high variability in rainfall — and 
found that autism was was correlated with rainfall (R A 2=.77). Thinking 
that the use of cable TV was another random variable that increased 
autism, they looked at similar data in California and Pennsylvania and 
found the use of cable TV correlated with autism (R A 2=.21). [Paper] 

(I probably screwed up the R A 2 bit, but that’s why I’m looking for other 
people to write these.) Of course, this particular study got lots of media 
attention (that’s why I knew about it), but I’m hoping that with enough 
contributors we’ll uncover interesting studies that don’t make it into the 
general news. 

So the contributors write a paragraph like this and send it in to an editor, 



who posts it to a blog, where people can subscribe and comment and so on 
like any other blog. 

I’m happy to set up the blog and serve as the initial editor, so what I really 
need are contributors. Do you read journals or other reports of new science? 

October 18, 2006 

1 . http : //www. johnson . Cornell . edu/ faculty /profiles/waldman/ autpaper . html 




Larry Wall once noted that the scientificness of a field is inversely correlated 
to how much the word “science” appears in its name. Physics, of course, 
doesn’t have science in the name and is the most scientific of all sciences. 
Then comes biology and and ethology and so on. Then come the non-sciences 
like Computer Science and Poultry Science. And worst of all is Scientology. 

In general, whenever someone tells you that “science” has decreed that you 
should do one thing or another that doesn’t seem reasonable, it’s probably 
because they’re trying to pull one over on you, whether it’s the “scientific” 
medicines you see on late-night TV or the science of the behaviorists who 
say you shouldn’t love your kids. 

But nowhere is this more evident than when people try to tell you what 
science itself is. This field of meta-science seems to attract more charlatans 
and malintents than any other. If you control how the very notion of what’s 
scientific is defined — well, then that’s real power. Even if the very idea is 
patently absurd. (A real scientist would never tell you that doing X isn’t really 
science; their goal is to get the truth, not sit around making rules about who’s 
in and who’s out.) 

For much of the outside world, the test for a real science is “falsifiability” — the 
possibility that there could be evidence proving the claim wrong. This notion 
was invented by Karl Popper, who was himself an enemy of science who tried 
to insist that science never actually made any progress, that we never learned 
anything more about the world. 

But even if we put aside this noxious pedigree, Popper’s definition is still 
absurd. Take the distinction between astronomy and astrology. We would 
all agree, I think, that the first is a science but the second isn’t. But both of 
their predictions are equally falsifiable — astrology makes a dozen falsifiable 
predictions in the newspaper five times a week. Popper’s criteria isn’t of much 
help to us, even on such a basic case. 



Sadly, like many American intellectuals, the Supreme Court assumed that 
falsifiability was a standard scientific test. In the Daubert case it, as Chris 
Mooney summarizes the view of the American Journal of Public Health., 
“blundered miserably” and set judges the task of using this “deeply confused 
philosophy of science” to act as gatekeepers in keeping scientific claims 
from juries. Actual scientists like is working to undo 
this these mistakes, but you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric — after all, 
Daubert' s defenders claim their just trying to uphold sound scientific standards. 
(Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, among others, has a 
fascinating expose of the junk science/ sound science notions cooked up by 
the PR industry to trash actual science. But that’s another subject.) 

What are the real effects, though? Daubert was a parent whose child was 
born with birth defects they believed were caused by the drug Benedictin 
which, in animal studies, appeared to cause the defects they were suffering. 
By making it harder for science to be presented in Court, these kinds of 
rulings make it easier for drug companies to claim there’s no “sound science” 
that they’re hurting anyone. 

America isn’t alone, however. In Britain a group supporting what they call 
“evidence-based medicine” is trying to tighten restrictions on what experiments 
can be examined when approving drugs. Evidence-based medicine? Who 
could be against that! But again, they’re playing the same games. Behind 
evidence-based science are a bunch of very bizarre claims about what science 
is and isn’t, taken not from doctors or scientists, but from econometricians (the 
subspecialty of economics that has to do with calculating things), which have 
quite a few problems of their own when it comes to the subject of evidence. 

Under “evidence-based medicine” rules, doctors aren’t allowed to prescribe 
drugs on the basis of case studies and other reports; instead, the only real 
evidence are large double-blind random controlled trials whose results have a 
less than 5% probability of being due to chance. (Why 5%? No good reason. 
But according to the EBM people anything more than that isn’t evidence.) 

Again, you have the same negative effects: when someone tries to claim in court 
that a certain drug destroyed their life, the drug company can claim that there’s 
no “evidence” to support this if the studies just happen to be 94% likely instead 
of 95%, or if there’s only a series of case studies instead of a controlled trial. 



This isn’t evidence, this isn’t rationality, this isn’t science. Science is about 
trying to get the truth about the world, using whatever mechanisms are most 
effective at the job, whether you’re studying the nature of planets in space or 
the nature of other cultures. When someone tells you otherwise, tries to insist 
that technique X or subject Y doesn’t deserve the name science, it’s probably 
because they’re trying to pull a fast one on you. 

October 18, 2006 




If we say that science is the goal of trying to figure things out about the 
world, then we see the sciences broadly classified into two categories: “hard” 
and “soft”. In the former are subjects like physics, biology, and perhaps the 
honorary inclusion of mathematics. The “soft” sciences, by contrast, include 
fields like history, psychology, sociology, and economics. 

As you might gather from the terms involved, partisans of the hard sciences 
often look down upon the softer sciences, considering them barely worthy of 
the term science at all. Indeed, the soft sciences rarely formulate general laws 
or clear predictions, as the harder sciences sometimes do. But why is that? 

The reason is, because the “soft” sciences are, in fact, harder. Humans are far 
more complicated than atoms, trying to figure out how they work is a great 
deal more difficult than coming up with the rules of mechanics. As a result, 
the social sciences are less well developed, which means there’s less to study, 
which means the fields are easier to learn. 

Nonetheless, since the field is so much harder, the people who make 
progress in it should get more respect. Physicists can isolate atoms and run 
an experiment; historians have to try to find clever ways to make a “natural 

Obviously, the progress has to be actual, rather than simply perceived, which 
is indeed a common confusion in the social sciences, but real observers of 
science should reconsider who they esteem. 

July n, 2006 




In the early 1900s, anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski did his field work 
in the Trobriand Islands of the Western Pacific. After getting himself ashore, 
he dropped himself into their culture and begun having to learn their language 
and understand their customs. The result were a series of groundbreaking 
books in the field of anthropology, much of which is still entertaining to 
read today. 

In The Sexual Life of Savages (savages, Malinowski assures us, is a technical 
term and not meant to cause offense) he describes the customs of Trobriand’s 
intimate life, which is fascinating both for how it is different and how it is 
the same. 

To a certain degree, it seems like the culture of the islanders presages our 
own. Back when Malinowski was doing his field work, he was amazed that 
islanders could freely have premarital sex and yet still found it desirable to get 
married. The same question would prove no puzzle to any American today. 

And, indeed, the islanders seem like a case study in the ultimate consequences 
of the sexual revolution: girls want sex just as much as guys, kids start having 
sex at a very young age — 6-8 for the girls and 10-12 for the guys — with 
no social stigma, there are few customs about dating to inhibit “hooking 
up”, and, of course, revealing clothing has been taken to its limit, with girls 
actually going topless. 

Of course, much of the story of a Trobriand’s intimate life is the same: initial 
attractions budding into lasting relationships, etc. And then, out of nowhere, 
Malinowski drops in something totally bizarre. The islanders don’t kiss, he 
explains. Instead, they scratch. The girls scratch the guys so hard that they draw 
blood and, if the guys can withstand the pain, then they move forward to having 
sex. The ethnographer (as Malinowski calls himself) verified this by noting that 
just about everyone on the island had noticeable scratches. And while everybody 
is having sex whenever they want, premarital meal-sharing is a big no-no. 
You’re not supposed to go out for dinner together until after you get married. 



But the most fascinating and strange part about the islanders are their 
beliefs on the subject of pregnancy, also described in Malinowski’s classic 
article “Baloma: The Spirits of the Dead in the Trobriand Islands” 1 . When 
people die, you see, their spirit takes a canoe to the island of Tuma, which 
works very much like the normal island except everybody is a spirit of the 
dead. When the spirit gets old and wrinkled it shrugs off its skin and turns 
back into an embryo, which a spirit then takes back to the island and inserts 
into a woman. This, you see, is how women get pregnant. 

That’s right. The islanders do not believe that sex causes pregnancy. They 
don’t believe in physiological fatherhood. Malinowski was incredibly skeptical 
about this, so he tried all sorts of ways to see if this was simply a story they 
told, while they actually the real deal. But no, they assured him that it was 
really true, that all the white people who insisted otherwise were being silly, 
that the spirits caused pregnancy, not sex. 

They argued the case quite logically. After all, they noted, one fellow went 
on an expedition for a year or two and when he came back, he had a new 
son . He obviously wasn’t having sex with her while he was away, so where did 
the kid come from? (Cough.) And, they note, there are some really hideous 
people on the island who nobody would dare have sex with, yet they manage 
to become pregnant. (Malinowski spies some kids looking sheepish when 
this subject is raised.) 

They also argue the other way: people on the island are having sex all the 
time from a very early age and yet they very rarely get pregnant. (Naturally, 
the islanders don’t practice any form of contraception; the very idea doesn’t 
make sense when sex doesn’t cause pregnancy.) The white man’s argument just 
doesn’t make sense. Indeed, recent visitors 2 report, the islanders still believe 
that sex doesn’t cause pregnancy, despite the best efforts of health workers. 

It is speculated that the yams that form the basis of the island diet have 
a contraceptive agent in them (The Pill was originally made by looking at 
chemicals in wild yams), which conveniently explains quite a bit, including 
the low birthrate despite the high level of sexual activity. Indeed, the whole 
idea lends quite a bit of support to the idea that material factors shape 
culture — after all, our own sexual revolution didn’t happen until we got the 
yam’s chemicals in pill form in 1960. 



The notion has some other interesting consequences. For example, the 
society is necessarily matrilineal, since fathers have no technical lineage. Yet 
sociological fathers (the mother’s husband), Malinowski notes, show more 
love and care for their children than most he’s seen in Europe. 

Furthermore, they believe the same rules apply to the rest of the animal 
kingdom. This is what clinches it for Malinowski — despite all the effort 
they go to to raise pigs, they insist that pigs also reproduce asexually. They 
never attempt to breed pigs; indeed, they castrate all the male pigs they have. 
(To them this is further proof — we castrated all the pigs and yet they keep 
having children! Malinowski notes that the domestic pigs often sneak off to 
canoodle with those in the wild.) 

When I told a friend of mine about this odd state of affairs, he wondered 
if the islanders were just stupid. After all, he noted, sex and childbirth aren’t 
exactly two physically unconnected human activities. But as he reflected 
on it further, he considered that this belief wasn’t that much different from 
what passes for religion in our country. Smart people believe strange things. 

October 16, 2006 

1 . http : / /www . aaronsw . com/weblog/ static/baloma . pdf 

2 . http: / /www. .html 




Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sociology and 
anthropology. There are the surface ones, of course — sociology typically 
studies first-world societies, whereas anthropology has a rep for studying so- 
called “primitive” cultures. But the fundamental difference is a philosophical 
one: sociologists study society, while anthropologists study culture. 

What’s the difference? Let’s do a case study. It’s easy to notice a subtle sort 
of sexism in American textbooks. For example, studies have found that in 
biology textbooks sperm are seen as competitive creatures while eggs are 
passive receptacles they aim to penetrate. But the actual science on the subject 
is much less clear: eggs seem to do a fair bit of selection themselves, etc. 

I saw a paper by an anthropologist on this fact; their argument was that these 
textbooks were a result of the sexism of American culture, a culture which 
sees men as competing for access to women, and those notions are naturally 
transported onto our writing about conception. Sexist culture, sexist output. 

A sociologist would dig a little deeper. They’d see who writes the textbooks, 
perhaps notice a disproportionate number of males. They’d look into why it was 
that males got these jobs, find the sexism inherent in the relevant institutions. 
They’d argue it was the structures of society that end up with sexist textbooks, 
not some magical force known as “American culture”. 

As you might guess, I’m on the side of the sociologists. Blaming things on 
culture — as if it were a natural property of a group of people or a mystical 
life force with its own mind — seems too facile. It also seems wrong. 

I’ve mostly been talking about the cultural anthropologists, but there are 
also a subset of racist anthropologists (sometimes called “anthropological 
science,” in accordance with Wall’s Law — see article “That Isn’t Science!”). 
These anthropologists tried to measure different properties of people, see if 
they could quantify the differences between the races and predict criminality 
from the shape of the head. 



Cultural anthropologists disdain all that and prefer to endorse a very left- 
wing notion of cultural relativism. (One shouldn’t make judgments about other 
cultures!) But in doing so, they end up pushing the judgments off onto the 
peoples involved. Just like the racist anthropologists, they end up suggesting 
that the reason people over here believe act differently from the people over 
there is because they’re different people. 

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from psychology, it’s that — for the 
most part — people are people, wherever you go. As Zimbardo’s Stanford 
Prison Experiment showed, put normal people into the wrong situation and 
they turn into devious enforcement machines. And put the same people into 
a different society and they’ll change just as fast. 

It isn’t culture — whatever that is — that causes these things; it’s institutions. 
Institutions create environments which force a course of action. And that’s 
why I’m a sociologist. 

Bonus recommendation'. I’ve been watching 7 he Wire lately; perhaps the 
most sociologically-inclined show on television. And that’s what makes it 
interesting, unlike all the other good-evil cop dramas. 

December 23, 2006 




The actions of almost everything in this world are causally determined by 
the state of the world that precedes them. Once you start a machine, if no one 
touches it, its behavior can be predicted entirely in advance from the laws of 
physics. When you drop a pen down a well, it is physically necessary that it fall. 

But our behavior doesn’t feel that way. When we stick out our tongue it 
feels as if we had to specifically choose to stick it out, that this was our own 
action and not a predetermined consequence of the existing state of the world. 

Some people argue that because the evidence for determinism is so 
overwhelming, free will must simply be an illusion. But if so, it is a very odd 
kind of illusion. Most illusions result from a naive interpretation of our senses. 
For example, in a classic illusion, two drawings of equal size appear to be of 
different size. But when we are told this is an illusion, we can correct for it, 
and behave under the new (more accurate) impression that the drawings are 
in fact of equal size. 

This simply isn’t possible with free will. If someone tells you that you do 
not actually have free will but have actually been acting under an illusion, 
you cannot sit back and let determinism take over. When the waiter asks you 
whether you like soup or salad, you cannot say “Oh, well I’ve just learned that 
free will is an illusion and all my actions are completely determined by the 
previous state of the world, so I’ll just let them play themselves out.” I mean, 
you can say that, but the waiter will look at you like you’re crazy and you will 
get neither soup nor salad. 

It seems overwhelmingly bizarre that evolution would have given us this 
strangest of illusions. This is not a spandrel, a small place evolution never had 
time to be concerned about. The illusion of free will affects all aspects of our 
lives and takes an enormous amount of work. One would think evolution 
would have eliminated it were it genuinely false. 



So what is the other possibility? The other possibility is that not all actions 
are entirely determined by the preexisting state of the world. And, in fact, 
recent advances in physics seem to show this is somewhat the case. Quantum 
mechanics suggests that at some fundamental level there is randomness 
involved in the laws of the world. And chaos theory shows us that small 
amounts of randomness in a system can have real large-scale effects. 

So, although it seems extremely improbable, if we have to avoid the 
improbability of evolution not breeding out an illusory free will, then we’re 
forced to look to the randomness of quantum mechanics for an explanation. 

But, some argue, this is insufficient. Quantum mechanics only gives us 
randomness — but free will isn’t just the pursuit of random behavior, it’s 
the pursuit of particular behaviors. While quantum mechanics can’t predict 
each individual bit, it does give overall probability distributions. Volitional 
behaviors would wreak havoc with those even distributions. 

Not true. Imagine the simple case where we have one quantum bitstream: 
a series of zeroes and ones, in which each individual number cannot be 
predicted, but there’s an overall law saying that roughly half of them will be 
one and half will be zero. And let us simplify the system to say that if the 
result of the quantum effect is 0 then the person moves left, and if it’s 1 they 
move right. In the naive scenario, free will affects this quantum bitstream so 
that when the person wants to move left the randomness keeps coming up 
zeroes. But that would violate the laws of physics — the results would no 
longer be half ones and half zeroes. 

So here’s the trick: first, the system gets a random bit from some other source. 
Then it adds the bit from the other source with the bit from the quantum 
bitstream and uses the result to decide if you move left or right. Now, when 
you want to continually move left, half the time you’ll have to make the 
quantum bitstream return zeroes and the other half the time ones — exactly 
what the laws of quantum mechanics require. 

With a little additional mathematical complexity, the scenario is generalizable 
to much more complicated quantum functions and human results. But the 
basic principle is the same: one can use quantum randomness to exercise free 
will without violating any statistical laws. 



Of course, this still leaves one key problem. What is picking the results of 
this quantum bitstream? And how does it do it? I have to admit I cannot 
really think of a sensible way But this seems like a problem for neurobiology 
to figure out and report back to us. I merely aim to prove that its doing so is 
consistent with what we know about the laws of physics. 

March 18, 2007 




Attention conservation notice : I am well aware that this post will get me called 
all sorts of silly names and insults (Penrosian apparently the worst among 
them). For once, I am not going to respond. I just think the theory ought to 
be published and if you are not inclined to believe it, then feel free to ignore it. 

The big mystery of the mind is reconciling two things: what we know 
about the physical structures of the brain and what we experience from day 
to day as conscious people. The first tells us that our brain is made up of a 
series of interconnected neurons which fire in response to certain inputs. The 
second tells us that people have subjective unified experiences and at least 
the appearance of free will. It seems hard to explain how the first can lead to 
the second, although they’re obviously connected somehow. 

So, for example, if we’re looking at certain visual illusions, we can choose 
to see them one way or to see them another way. And obviously this choice 
has some impact on the rest of the brain, especially the part that processes 
vision. But nobody’s been able to find the place in the brain from which such 
choices originate. 

I don’t know enough about the subject to vouch for it, but this article 1 
claims that neurons are small enough that we could see quantum effects in 
their high-level behavior: 

The juncture between two neurons is called the synapse. Each of 
the perhaps 100 billion neurons in the brain is connected to about 
1,000 other neurons. At the synapse, a firing neuron either passes 
a neurochemical signal to the next neuron, or it does not pass a 
signal, with the passing or not passing depending on the complex 
neurochemistry of the synapse. If, within a millisecond, a certain 
number of signals are passed on to a neuron, then that neuron will 
fire. Otherwise it will not fire. Thus what happens at the various 
synapses — signal passed on or not passed on — is the sole determinant 
of the firing pattern of the neurons in the brain. The synapses are the 



control points for our flow of thoughts. 

The synaptic gap, the gap between one neuron and the next, is quite 
small, 3.5 nanometers, which is about 35 (hydrogen) atoms. The sizes 
of the adjacent parts of the synapse, where much of the neurochemistry 
goes on, are also small, on the order of 3,500 atoms wide. Now one of 
the peculiar effects of quantum mechanics is that if the volume where an 
atom might be located (the place where the wave function is non-zero) 
is initially small, it will spread out in time. One can use Heisenberg’s 
uncertainty principle to show that a calcium ion, for example, will spread 
out to the size of the synapses (not just the synaptic gap) in about .1 
milliseconds (see 8 below). Neural processes in the brain occur on a time 
scale of a millisecond, ten times slower than the spread of a calcium ion 
over the whole synapse. 

So here’s the proposal: a series of entangled quantum particles at the 
synaptic level allow for coordinated firing patterns which occur in response 
to choices by our conscious free will. Just as my previous post reconciled free 
will with statistical randomness, this would seem to reconcile free will with 
the neuroanatomy. 

It still seems incredible that there is some high-level coordinated process with 
its fingers in the quantum effects of our synapses. But we know something 
incredible is going on because we have subjective experience. So this doesn’t 
seem like much of a stretch to me. 

January 28, 2008 

1 . http : //www. quantunraiechanicsandreality . com/Primer/ iia8_brain . htm 




First, let’s imagine that tomorrow scientists announced the discovery of 
rock-solid, unimpeachable, 100% convincing evidence of differences in mental 
function between men and women. Let’s say, for example, they notice that 
there’s a tiny hole where the “math center” of the brain should be. No wonder 
they do worse at math! 

No doubt, The Times would respond with a handwringing article 1 about the 
important scientific implications and David Brooks would throw a party 2 
and denounce closed-minded liberals. George Bush would cancel programs 
aimed at helping girls learn math and Harvard University would shut down 
their task force on getting women tenure. 

But are these really appropriate responses? Showing genetic differences is 
only the first in a long line of things that need to be shown to prove that 
gender-based disparities in tenure are unavoidable. As Jeremy Freese 3 has 
pointed out, it’s a long line from genes to social outcomes. To make the case, 
you need to go a lot further. 

Second, you have to show the genetic differences are relevant. It’s possible 
the hole in the math center could be completely insignificant, that women 
do just as well at math irrespective. So you need to show that the hole causes 
differences in functioning. One way to do this is to find different people with 
differing sizes of holes, control for as many other factors as possible, and see 
if the size of hole is correlated with some test of math functioning. 

Third, you need to prove that the differences are unavoidable. The brain 
has amazing levels of neuroplasticity. Perhaps with the right environment, 
women can be taught to do math with another part of their brain. Perhaps, 
as a result, they might even do better than men at math. Again, Freese has 
pointed out 4 that the same genetic differences (or genetic similarities) can 
go all sorts of different places in different environments. If there’s an easy 
environmental change that makes even genetically different women equally 
good at math, we ought to make it. 



Fourth, you need to show a causal link from the genetic difference to the 
tenure disparity. Why is it that doing worse at math causes you to do worse at 
tenure? Are speed-math-tests used as a relevant factor in tenure decisions? If 
so, maybe you guys should really cut that out, because that’s a pretty stupid test. 

Fifth, you need to show that it’s the only cause of discrimination. Even if 
genetic differences cause some of the disparity, it’s still morally required for 
us to remove the rest. Do guys with holes in their math center do just as bad 
as women at getting tenure? Do women with no holes do just as well as men? 

Right now, there’s only even arguable evidence for the very first of these. 
Those of us who want to shove discrimination under the rug need to do a 
lot more work on the other four. 

May 23, 2007 

1 . http : / /itre . cis . upenn . edu/~my 1 / language log/ archives / 003894 . html 

2 . http : / / itre . cis . upenn . edu/-myl/languagelog/archives /003246 . html 

3 . http : / / jeremy f reese . blogspot . com/ 2006 / 11 / twenty- f our-stories-of- 

4 . http : / / jeremy f reese . blogspot . com/ 2006 / 11 / eight-plots-revised . html 




CAMBRIDGE, MA — In a study published today in the prestigious 
journal Nature , Harvard professor Dr. Thomas Jacobson, an expert in the 
field of physical neuroscience, finds that the gangly cortex, the area of the 
brain associated with stumbling, fumbling, and general klutziness, is smaller 
in members of the Red Sox sports team than in other major league baseball 

The study, entitled “Differential Size Analysis of the Gangly Cortex In 
Professional Sports”, was conducted using a technique called Functional 
Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, in which brain activity is observed 
on a computer monitor while subjects perform a mental activity. In his fMRI 
studies, Dr. Jacobson noted significantly less mental activity in the gangy 
cortex of Red Sox players when he asked them to visualize various aspects 
of a baseball game. 

“Obviously far more research needs to be done,” explained Dr. Jacobson, 
“but this evidence does appear to support the popular belief that Red Sox 
players are just better than everyone else.” 

The study could have major implications for the entire field of physical 
neuroscience, which examines how differences in the brain can affect 
performance in various types of strenuous physical activity, including baseball, 
American football, running the mile, hockey, and the biathlon. 

“I haven’t seen the study but I think it’s extremely brave work,” said former 
Harvard President Lawrence Summers when asked to comment. “There’s an 
academic orthodoxy of political correctness that says you shouldn’t inquire 
too much into the differences between sports teams. Well, Dr. Jacobson has 
thrown that out the window and science is better off for it.” 

The study appears in the July 27th issue of Nature, along with new research 
showing that eating chocolate is good for your heart 1 , Jews are just smarter 



than everyone else 2 , semen makes women happier 3 , and all women are 
bisexual 4 . A new study showing that having sex with 5 scientists is associated 
with a 20-point increase in IQ^ is expected to be released soon. 

October 22, 2007 

1 . http : / / news . bbc . co . uk/2 /hi/ in_depth/ sci_tech/ 2001/ 
glasgow_200 1/152 1982 .stm 

2 . http : / / www . seedmagaz ine .com/ news / 2005/12/j ews_on_ j ews_ j ews_are_great . 

3 . http : / / news . bbc 1 /hi/health/ 2067223 . stm 

4 . http: / /www. sciencedaily .com/releases/2003/06/0306 13075252 .htm 

5 . http : / / cr . yp . to/postpropter . html 

6 . http: / / .html 





As the name suggests, the social sciences have often seen themselves as an 
analogue or extension of the natural sciences and have from the beginning 
aspired to their successes. Like many who want to duplicate success they do 
not understand, social sciences has been obsessed with duplicating the form 
of the natural sciences and not its motivations. Just as rival music player 
manufacturers have tried to copy the look of the iPod without understanding 
why it takes that look, the social sciences have copied the structure of the 
natural sciences without understanding why they take that structure. 

The greatest success of the natural sciences is undoubtedly the laws of physics. 
Here, an handful of simple equations can accurately predict the motion of 
a vast variety of everyday objects under common actions. Seeing this, social 
scientists have aspired to derive similar laws that predict the behavior of 
whole societies. (Others, meanwhile insist the entire project is impossible 
because the society will respond to the creation of the law, making the law 
invalid — reflexivity.) 

But reflection upon the history of the natural sciences will see that this 
notion is insane. Physics did not develop thru attempts to discover the laws 
that explained all of motion. Instead, various kinds of motion (like falling 
objects) were described, rules for their behavior deduced, and commonalities 
in those rules discovered. Eventually it was the case that the commonalities 
were so great and the rules so few that a handful of laws could explain most 
of the phenomena, but this assumption was not made a priori. 

Jon Elster argues that the social sciences should proceed in a similar way: 
various social phenomena should be described, the mechanisms that give rise 
to them explained, and the commonalities among mechanisms discovered. 
Most of his work consists of practicing social science in this way, with a few 
attempts at laying out a toolbox of these common mechanisms. 



Modern social science is so split between attempts at grand law-like theories 
and modest essays of careful description that Elster’s third way seems alien 
and hard to comprehend. But there is a clear model that social scientists can 
look to: analytical philosophy. 

Analytical philosophers do not take as their task grand law-like 
explanations for the world. Instead, they set upon a particular piece of 
conception — language, free will, ethics — and try to discover its logical 
structure. In doing so they often develop tools they shared in common with 
other philosophical projects. 

This similarity can perhaps be best seen in the work of the man who is Jon 
Elster’s closest equivalent in the world of analytical philosophy, John Searle. 
In his career, Searle has addressed a number of topics: language, intentionality, 
consciousness, social reality, and rationality. Throughout he has taken has 
his task providing a clear description of the phenomena and explaining the 
pieces it consists of. And in explaining those pieces, he frequently develops 
tools that he reuses in his other explanations. 

Take the notion of direction of fit. Searle argues that all statements have a 
direction of fit, which can be either up, down, both, or null. If we imagine 
(by convention) that statements float above the world pointing down at the 
things they represent, then statements like “John and Jill are married”, in 
which it is the job of the statement to change to accurately represent the 
world, have a downward direction of fit. By contrast, statements like “I want 
to marry him”, in which it is the world must change to match the statement, 
have an upward direction of fit. 

This notion, which Searle and Austin developed for describing language, 
Searle later reused for describing mental states. Love, for example, has an 
upward direction of fit, belief downward, and joy null. And in my own everyday 
life, I have found the same tool useful in thinking about various phenomena 
I’ve encountered. 

Social scientists don’t seem to read much philosophy. I suspect most of 
them see it as an alien culture consisting of, as Paul Graham put it, “either 
highly technical stuff that doesn’t matter much, or vague concatenations of 
abstractions their own authors didn’t fully understand.” But perhaps they 



should, because even if the technical stuff lacks interest (and considering 
some of the topics involved, I’m skeptical that this is always the case), the 
tools, and the way they’re wielded, should be a lesson. 

May 12, 2008 




I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, just down the street from where the telephone 
was invented. I now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just down the street from 
where it was stolen. Seth Shulmans recent book The Telephone Gambit lays out 
the clearest case yet of how it all happened. Here’s the summary: 

Alexander Graham Bell (or Aleck Bell, as he was then called) was the 
son of Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor of a system of phonic notation 
called Visible Speech. The elder Bell would use Aleck as an assistant in his 
demonstrations: After sending Aleck to wait in another room, Mr. Bell would 
ask the audience for a word or strange noise then write it in Visible Speech. 
Aleck would return and reproduce the sound from the writing alone. Voila. 

As a child growing up like this, he played at inventing machines that could 
talk and telegraphs that could listen. But he found his career in tutoring the 
deaf — by teaching them to pronounce the phonemes of Visible Speech, he 
eventually succeeded in teaching them to talk and read lips. 

One of his students was Mabel Hubbard, daughter of prominent Boston 
lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard. Son of a Massachusetts Supreme Court 
Justice, Hubbard established water and gas and trolley utilities for Cambridge, 
Mass. — some of the first in the nation. He also fervently lobbied Congress to 
replace Western Union’s monopoly on the telegraph with a new corporation, 
the US Postal Telegraph Company, that would contract with the government 
Post Office. 

At the time, telegraph wires blanketed the skies of Boston, hanging in a 
dense web above the buildings. Many desperately wished for someone to 
develop a telegraph that could send multiple messages over the same wire, so 
that many wires could be replaced with just one. The theory was that if one 
could transmit the messages using different tones, they would “harmonize” 
instead of interfere, leading the idea to be called the “harmonic telegraph”. 
Naturally, Alexander Graham Bell turned his tinkering to this problem and 
persuaded Hubbard (as well as Thomas Sanders, another father of a Bell 



student) to finance his research in exchange for a share of any future US 
profits. Further complicating matters, Bell had fallen in love with his student, 
Mabel Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard made it clear he did not approve of such a 
marriage unless Bell made a profitable discovery. 

But Bell was simply a hobbyist, the real research was being done by a 
man named Elisha Gray. Gray ran Western Electric, the leading supplier 
of technical expertise to telegraph monopoly Western Union. From his lab 
in Highland Park, Illinois, he and his assistants worked feverishly at new 
discoveries. Bell was well aware of this and considered himself to be in a race 
with Gray to invent the harmonic telegraph first. 

In 1875, Bell made a breakthrough in his work on the harmonic telegraph. 
But he was a crafty fellow — his deal with Gardiner and Sanders was only 
about splitting US profits; it said nothing about profits overseas. British law 
at the time granted patents only to inventions not patented elsewhere first, 
so Bell drew up several copies of his harmonic telegraph patent and sent 
some to be filed in Britain first. The rest were sent to DC to be filed as soon 
as word got back from Britain. 

On February 14, 1876, while the lawyers were waiting in DC to file Bell’s 
patent, Gray filed a patent of his own. Bell’s lawyers were close to the patent 
officers and had asked to be tipped off if Gray tried to file something, so they 
could file Bell’s patent first. When Gray’s patent was placed in the patent 
office’s inbox, Bell’s lawyers hand-delivered Bell’s patent to the examiner, so 
they could claim he’d received Bell’s first. 

The patent examiner, Zenas Fisk Wilber, had fought in the civil war with 
Bell’s attorney, Marcellus Bailey. Wilber was an alcoholic and owed Bailey 
money (a serious Patent Office ethics violation). To pay his friend back, he 
showed him Gray’s application. Bailey was startled to find it wasn’t a patent 
on a harmonic telegraph at all — it was a patent for a telephone, capable of 
transmitting all the sounds of human speech and music. He called for Bell 
to come to DC at once. 

Bell did, and examiner Wilber showed him Gray’s patent as well, taking time 
to explain how it worked. Bell thanked him and returned that afternoon with 
$100 for his trouble. Bell then quickly scribbled an addition to his patent in the 



margin, adding that it should also cover “transmitting vocal or other sounds 
telegraphically” (this addition does not appear in any of the other copies). 

Contravening much standard practice at the time, Bell’s (modified) patent 
was quickly granted, while Gray’s was denied. It was issued the same day Bell 
returned home from DC, March 7, 1876. The following day, Bell drew in 
his lab notebook a copy of the diagram he had seen in Elisha Gray’s patent: 

Diagram showing the similarity between Gray’s patent and Bell’s notebook 

It took Bell several days of tinkering, but soon he was able to replicate Gray’s 
device. On March 10, he made that now-famous call: “Watson — come 
here — I want to see you.” Both Bell and his assistant Watson recorded the 
event that night in their notebooks. 

But Bell didn’t want to simply duplicate Gray’s work; he wanted to invent a 
telephone of his own. He spent many months trying to develop a telephone 
that worked on a different principle, but never succeeded in getting it to 
clearly transmit audible speech. Bell was always extraordinarily reluctant to 
demonstrate his telephone, for fear that Gray would learn it was a simple 
copy. Mabel had to trick him into attending the Centennial Exposition, 
where he was supposed to demonstrate his work to a group of engineers, 
including Elisha Gray. On one occasion, Bell’s telephone patent was set to 



be annulled unless Bell would swear under oath that the invention was truly 
his. Bell fled the country, testifying only at the last minute after desperate 
pleading from Mabel. 

The legal conniving a success, Bell and Mabel were soon married. Feeling 
guilty, Bell gave all but ten of his shares in the Bell Telephone Company to 
her and swore to never work in telephony again. The company was operated 
by Gardiner and others while Bell went back to working with the deaf. He 
always said he was more proud of his work for the deaf than of the telephone. 

It took Gray a long time to realize that Bell’s patent was a fraud. For 
one thing, he was still focused on the harmonic telegraph; his customers at 
Western Union couldn’t imagine running telephone wires to every house and 
thus couldn’t see how talking over wires was particularly useful. For another, 
it took years for the story to leak out, through numerous court battles and 
Congressional hearings. Zenas Fisk Wilber’s affidavit 1 confessing to what 
he’d done did not appear until 1886, a decade later. Bell’s notebooks, making 
clear the blatant copy, were not made public until the 1990s. 

Bell’s biographers have gone to heroic lengths to explain away all the 
evidence. Refusing credit for the telephone just showed Bell’s humility; not 
being involved in the corporation showed his dedication to pure research. 
The fact that both patents were filed on the same day is a grand historic 
coincidence — or perhaps Gray stole the idea from Bell. 

As a result, Gray is forgotten and Bell is remembered as one of history’s 
great inventors — not as he should be: a hobbyist and a fraud, forced by love 
into stealing one of the greatest inventions of all time. 

January 5, 2009 

1 . http: //upload. wikimedia. org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Zenas-fisk-wilber- 




Imagine someone offered you a 1% chance of winning a million dollars. 
How much would you pay for it? The natural inclination would be to say you 
break even at 1% of a million, which is $10,000. Even if you could scrape 
together the cash, this doesn’t seem like a very good deal. After all, there’s a 
99% chance that you’ll have just thrown away ten grand. 

Where did we go wrong? The problem is that calculating the average value 
this way only makes sense if you get to take the deal enough times to expect 
an average result. If you bought a couple thousand of these chances at $9000 
each, then you might start to come out ahead. But buying just one doesn’t 
seem very bright. 

Of course, the same logic applies to more pedestrian examples of risk. It 
probably doesn’t make sense to invest in just one startup, even if the returns 
on startups are huge. That’s why VCs invest in large numbers of startups; the 
returns from the wins balance out the flops. 

This should seem pretty obvious, but some people seem to forget it a lot. 
Take the St. Petersburg paradox. Imagine this game: A dollar is placed on the 
table and a coin is flipped. If the coin comes up heads, the money is doubled 
and the coin is flipped again. Tails, the game ends and you take the money. 
How much would you pay to play? 

The paradox comes about because the naive answer here is infinite. There’s a 
50% chance you get a dollar (=fifty cents), a 25% chance you get 2 (another fifty 
cents), a 12.5% chance you get 4 (again), and so on infinitely. But, naturally, 
it seems insane to pay a fortune to play this game. Thus the paradox. 

Folks seem to be genuinely stumped about this, but it’s just the first offer 
taken to the limit: instead of a 1% chance of making a million, you have an 
infinitesimal chance of making an infinity. If you got to play the game an 
infinite number of times, shelling out cash might begin to make sense, but 
if you only play it once it’s not worth much. 



Keep that in mind next time someone offers you a game. 

April 13, 2009 




It seems like each new day brings another one of those headlines: regular 
sleep “linked to” life expectancy, playing video games “associated with” surgical 
prowess, bullies “at risk” of becoming criminals, and “does breastfeeding reduce 
a baby’s blood pressure?” (the old rhetorical question gambit). Sometimes 
the articles are clear: the research has only found a correlation between two 
variables — breastfeeding and low blood pressure were found together. But 
more often, they imply that causation is at work — that breastfeeding causes 
lower blood pressure. 

You’ve surely heard that old statistics adage: correlation does not imply 
causation. Just because breastfeeding and low blood pressure are found 
together doesn’t mean the first caused the second. Perhaps the second caused 
the first (moms might prefer to keep breastfeeding calmer babies) or some 
other thing caused both of them (maybe moms who don’t work both tend 
to breastfeed and stress their kids less). You can’t tell from correlation alone. 

Indeed, the philosopher David Hume argued that we could never know 
whether causation was at work. “Solidity, extension, motion; these qualities 
are all complete in themselves, and never point out any other event which may 
result from them,” he wrote. But not causation: “One event follows another, 
but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but 
never connected.” 

And, as philosophers since Plato and Sextus Empiricus have argued, such 
evidence can deceive us. Imagine finding a button and, each time you press 
it, a beep is heard. Normally, we’d assume that the button always causes the 
beep. But we’d be wrong — one day the power goes out and the button does 

Which is why, centuries later, Karl Pearson, the founder of mathematical 
statistics, banned the notion of causality from the discipline, calling it “a fetish 
amidst the inscrutable arcana of modern science” and insisting that just by 
understanding simple correlation one “grasped the essence of the conception 



of association between cause and effect. 

His followers have kept it banished ever since. “Considerations of causality 
should be treated as they have always been in statistics: preferably not at all,” 
wrote a former president of the Biometric Society. “It would be very healthy 
if more researchers abandon thinking of and using terms such as cause and 
effect,” insisted another prominent social scientist. 

And there the matter has stayed. Causality is a concept as meaningless as 
“the soul” and just as inappropriate for modern mathematical science. And 
yet, somehow, this doesn’t seem quite right. If causation is nothing but a 
meaningless word that laypeople have layered over correlation, then why 
the ceaseless insistence that “correlation does not imply causation”? Why 
are our thoughts filled with causal comments (he made me do it!) and never 
correlational ones? 

The result is exceptionally strange. Statistics has no mathematical way to 
express the notion “mud does not cause rain”. It can say mud is correlated 
with rain (i.e. that there’s a high probability of seeing mud if you see rain), 
no problem, but expressing the simple causal concept — the kind of thing 
any five-year-old would know — is impossible. 

Statisticians may have never had to confront this problem but, luckily for us, 
Artificial Intelligence researchers have. It turns out if you’re making a robot, 
having a notion of causality is essential — not just because it’s the only way 
to understand the humans, but because it’s the only way to get anything done! 
How are you supposed to turn the lights on if you don’t know that it’s the 
light-switch and not the clicking noise that causes it? 

The result is that in recent years several teams of AI researchers have turned 
their focus from building robots to building mathematical tools for dealing 
with causality. At the forefront is Judea Pearl (author of the book Causality , 
Cambridge University Press) and his group at UCLA and Clark Glymour 
(author of 1 he Mind’s Arrows, MIT Press), Peter Spirtes, and their colleagues at 
Carnegie Mellon. The result is a quiet revolution in the field of statistics — one 
most practicing statisticians are still unaware of. 

They started by dismissing Plato’s skepticism about the problem. Granted, 



they say, we may never know for sure whether the button always causes the 
beep, but that’s too stringent a demand. Science never knows anything for 
sure — the best we can hope for is extracting the most knowledge from the 
evidence we have. Or, as William James put it, “To know is one thing, and 
to know for certain that we know is another.” 

Next, they created a new mathematical function to formalize our notion of 
causality: do(...). do expresses the notion of intervening and actually trying 
something. Thus, to mathematically express the notion that mud does not 
cause rain, we can say P(rain | do(mud=true)) = P(rain) — in other words, 
the chance of rain given that you made it muddy is the same as the chance 
of rain in general. 

But causes rarely comes in pairs like these — more often it comes in 
complicated chains: clouds cause rain which causes both mud and wet clothing 
and the latter causes people to find a change of clothes. And so the researchers 
express these as networks, usually called causal Bayes nets or graphical causal 
models, which show each thing (clouds, rain, mud) as a node and the causal 
relationships as arrows between them: 

(clouds ) 


( rain ) 


/ \ 

/ \ 
v v 

( mud ) ( wet ) 


( change ) 

And all this was just the warm-up act. Their real breakthrough was this: 
just as kids can discover causes by observation, computers can discern causes 
from data. Now obviously the easiest way to do this is just to measure what 



happens when you do(X=x) directly — this, for example, is what randomized 
controlled trials do. Kids do it by dropping a fork on the floor and seeing 
if this causes Mom to pick it up; scientists do it by randomly giving some 
people a real drug and others just a placebo. The result is that we can be sure 
of the cause — after all, it was we who dropped the fork and gave out the 
drug; nothing else could be sneaking in and causing it. 

But in most cases we don’t have this luxury. We’d like to know whether a 
new tax policy will cause the economy to tank before we enact it; we’d like 
to know whether smoking causes cancer without forcing kids to smoke; and 
even in randomized controlled trials, we can give half the patients the real 
drug, but we can’t make them take it. If the drug being tested makes someone 
so horribly sick that they stop taking it and then get better, drug trials still 
count that as a victory for the drug! 

Obviously we can’t always know such things just from observing, but in a 
surprising number of cases we can. And the researchers have developed a 
mathematical method — called the do- calculus — for determining just when 
you can. Feed it a Bayes network of variables, their relationships, and their 
values, and it will return back what it knows and with what certainty. 

Thus, in an example Pearl frequently uses, tobacco companies used to argue 
that the correlation between smoking and cancer was simply because there 
were certain genes that made people both more likely to smoke and more 
likely to get cancer. It didn’t matter if they quit smoking — their genes would 
lead cancer to get them anyway. Pearl shows that if we assume only smoking 
causes tar deposits on the lungs and the tar deposits are the only way smoking 
causes cancer, we can simply measure the tar deposits and calculate whether 
the tobacco companies are right. 

Or, in another example in his book Causality , he analyzes data from a 
study on a cholesterol-reducing drug. Since whether people got the placebo 
or not is unassociated with any other variables (because it was randomly 
assigned) if we merely assume that receiving the real drug has some influence 
on whether people take it, we can calculate the effectiveness of the drug even 
with imperfect compliance. Indeed, we can even estimate how effective the 
drug would have been for people who were assigned it but didn’t take it! 



And that’s not all — Peter Spirtes and Clark Glymour have developed an 
algorithm (known as PC, for Peter-Clark) that, given just the data, will do its 
best to calculate the causal network behind it. You can download the software 
implementing it, called TETRAD IV, for free from their department’s 
website — it even has a nice graphical interface for drawing and displaying 
the networks. 

As an experiment, I fed it some data from the IRS about 2005 income 
tax returns. It informed me that the percentage people donate to charity is 
correlated with the number of dependents they have, which in turn correlates 
with how much people receive from EITC.That amount, along with average 
income, causes how many people are on EITC. Average income is correlated 
with the tax burden which is correlated with inequality. All interesting and 
reasonable — and the result of just a few minutes’ work. 

The applications for such tools are endless. As Pearl points out, they have 
the possibility to radically improved how statistics are used in medicine, 
epidemiology, economics, sociology, and law. And, as Glymour observes, it 
lets us better understand results in neuroscience and psychology. Take The 
Bell Curve, the 1992 bestseller that argued blacks had lower IQs, causing 
poorer performance in school and thus lower-paying jobs and more crime. 
Glymour shows, by applying the do-calculus, these results only hold if you 
assume that there are no other interactions between the variables (e.g. that 
parental attitude toward learning doesn’t affect both IQ_and performance in 
school). But the PC algorithm and TETRAD IV can demonstrate otherwise. 

Such results may be a revolution in social science, but compared to building 
human-like robots, they’re child’s play. That’s certainly the impression one 
gets from Pearl. Discussing his work at a conference of Artificial Intelligence 
researchers, he said: 

One of the reasons I find these areas to be fertile grounds to try out 
new ideas is that, unlike AI, tangible rewards can be reaped from solving 
relative small problems. Problems involving barely 4 to 5 variables, which 
we in AI regard as toy-problems, carry tremendous payoffs in public 
health and social science. 

Billions of dollars are invested each year on various public-health 



studies: Is chocolate ice-cream good for you or bad for you? Would red 
wine increase or decrease your heart rate? etc. etc. 

The same applies to the social sciences. Would increasing police budget 
decrease or increase crime rates? Is the Colorado school incident due 
to TV violence or failure of public education? The Inter-university 
Consortium for Political and Social Research has distributed about 800 
gigabytes worth of such studies in 1993 alone. 

Unfortunately the causal-analytical methodology currently available 
to researchers in these fields is rather primitive, and every innovation 
can make a tremendous difference. [. . .] This has been changing recently 
as new techniques are beginning to emerge from AI laboratories. I 
predict that a quiet revolution will take place in the next decade in 
the way causality is handled in statistics, epidemiology, social science, 
economics, and business. While news of this revolution will never make 
it to DARPA’s newsletter, and even NSF is not equipped to appreciate 
or support it, it will nevertheless have enormous intellectual and 
technological impact on our society. 

For science’s sake, I hope he’s right. 

September 21, 2009 




In a classic piece of psychology 1 , Kahneman and Tversky ask people what 
to do about a fatal disease that 600 people have caught. One group is asked 
whether they would administer a treatment that would definitely save 200 
people’s lives or one with a 33% chance of saving 600 people. The other group 
is asked whether they would administer a treatment under which 400 people 
would definitely die or one where there’s a 33% chance that no one will die. 

The two questions are the same: saving 600 people means no one will die, 
saving just 200 means the other 400 will die. But people’s responses were 
radically different. The vast majority of people chose to save 200 people for 
sure. But an equally large majority chose to take the chance that no one will 
die. In other words, just changing how you describe the option — saying 
that it saves lives rather than saying it leaves people to die — changes which 
option most people will pick. 

In the same way that Festinger, et. al. showed that our intuitions are biased 
by our social situation, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated that humans 
suffer from consistent cognitive biases as well. In a whole host of examples, 
they showed people behaving in a way we wouldn’t hesitate to think was 
irrational — like changing their position on whether to administer a treatment 
based on what it was called. (I think a similar problem affects our intuitions 
about killing versus letting die.) 

This is a major problem for people like Frances Kamm, who think our moral 
philosophy must rely on our intuitions. If people consistently and repeatedly 
treat things differently based on what they’re called, are we forced to give 
that moral weight? Is it OK to administer a treatment when it’s described 
as saving people, but not when it’s described as not saving enough? Surely 
moral rules should meet some minimal standard of rationality. 

This problem affects a question close to Kamm’s work: what she calls the 
Problem of Distance in Morality (PDM). Kamm says that her intuition 
consistently finds that moral obligations attach to things that are close to us, 



but not to thinks that are far away. According to her, if we see a child drowning 
in a pond and there’s a machine nearby which, for a dollar, will scoop him 
out, we ’re morally obligated to give the machine a dollar. But if the machine 
is here but the scoop and child are on the other side of the globe, we don’t 
have to put a dollar in the machine. 

But, just as with how things are called, our intuitions about distance suffer 
from cognitive biases. Numerous studies have shown that the way we think 
about things nearby is radically different from the way we think about things 
far away. In one study 2 , Indiana University students did better on a creativity 
test when they were told the test was devised by IU students studying in 
Greece than when they were told it was devised by IU students studying in 

It’s a silly example, but it makes the point. If our creativity depends on 
whether someone mentions Greece or Purdue, it’s no surprise our answers 
to moral dilemmas depend on whether they take place in the US or China. 
But surely these differences have no more moral validity than the ones that 
result from Tversky’s experiment — they’re just an unfortunate quirk of how 
we’re wired. Rational reflection — not faulty intuitions — should be the test 
of a moral theory. 

January 8 , 2010 

1 . http: / /scholar. google. com/scholar?cluster=15957 19866384 1029024 

2 . http: / /www. 




On the advice of several people, I started reading Derek Parfit ’s Reasons and 
Persons. I haven’t gotten very far, but it seems to me to be a horribly muddled 
book, wrong on just about every point. So perhaps this will be an ongoing 
series where I debunk the book in sequence. I apologize to my readers if 
these posts seem obvious and not very interesting. That’s because I think the 
situations Parfit discusses are actually quite simple and it’s only his muddled 
terminology that makes them seem tricky. 

Let’s clarify Parfit ’s discussion of self-defeating theories, which really comes 
down to a discussion about credible commitments. For simplicity, imagine 
there is no interest or inflation and your only goal in life is to maximize how 
much money you have. Thus an act is rational iff it contributes to that goal. 

Case 1: There are two buttons. SUBTRACT removes $1000 from your bank 
account, ADD adds $5000 to your bank account. Obviously it is rational to 
press ADD and irrational to press SUBTRACT. 

Case 2: There is one button, BOTH, which does both at the same time. 
Obviously it is rational to press BOTH, since it results in a net gain of $4000. 

Case 3: There is a different button, DELAY, which adds $5000 to your 
bank account today and then removes $1000 in exactly one week. (DELAY 
is a weird button — to prevent you from using it twice at the same time, 
it stays down for the whole week and only pops back up once the $1000 is 
removed.) Obviously it is rational to press DELAY since it too results in a 
net gain of $4000. 

Case 4: There are two buttons: DELAY, which is the same as before, and 
EVADE, which changes your bank account number so that none of the 
other buttons work. You can only press each button once and they have no 
other consequences. It is rational to press DELAY and then EVADE, for a 
net gain of $5000. 



When is it rational to press EVADE? Only when you don’t expect to be 
able to press DELAY ever again. (EVADE gains you at most $1000, while 
DELAY gains you at least $4000.) If you could press DELAY twice, would 
it be rational to hit EVADE after the first press? Of course not, it’d cost you 
at least $4000. But Parfit seems to suggest one is acting rationally irrationally 
by not pressing it. The notion seems nonsensical. 

Case 5: Same two buttons, except after you press the DELAY button it 
engages a little impenetrable metal cover that physically prevents you from 
pressing EVADE. It’s rational to press DELAY. Then it’s rational to press 
EVADE, but that’s kind of irrelevant, because it’s also impossible. 

Case 6: Same as 5, except it injects you with a serum that prevents you from 
pressing EVADE. Again, it’s rational to press DELAY and then rational but 
impossible to press EVADE. 

I don’t see a big difference between these two cases, but Parfit seems to 
think the difference is vital. 

Perhaps it’s the fact that another person is involved that leads to the 

Case 7: Same as 4, except the $1000 goes into Bob’s account and only 
Bob can press DELAY. Bob has the same notion of rationality as you and 
thus will only press DELAY if he believes you will not press EVADE. You 
could promise not to press it, but it would be irrational for you to keep that 
promise so Bob rightly does not believe it. However, it would be rational for 
you to engage the impenetrable cover or take the serum that prevents you 
from pressing EVADE. 

There is no rational irrationality. Your goal of maximizing your money is 
not self-defeating. This all seems like the most obvious, unarguable stuff in 
the world. So I don’t see why Parfit is so confused about it. 

July l, 2010 




We are all the same, we are all different — this is the great modern dilemma. 
At the same time science and technology lets us see our patterns (guess 
what books we’ll like without ever meeting us, predict the probability with 
which a certain drug will have a certain side effect) our social independence 
encourages us to believe we cannot be so easily controlled (thus millions of 
people watching the same TV ad insisting they “think different”). 

The tension can be felt most acutely in medicine, where a long and storied 
tradition of individualism (each patient is unique, with their own symptoms 
and history and makeup) confronts the most expensive products of modern 
megascience (every pill of a drug is the same, its workings validated through a 
test on thousands of people). And then you have doctors, caught in the middle: 
what are they to be — brilliant individuals, cunningly solving problems on their 
own (or, more realistically, with a small team) or dutiful cogs, administering 
the treatments shown most effective by large experiments? 

For every individual person, you can come up with a story about why the 
larger results may not apply (most of the people in that study were young 
and healthy, but you are old and frail). But that just replaces hard science 
with educated suspicion. On the whole what was proven true on the whole 
must work better, right? 

This is the position of evidence-based medicine, which says that doctors can’t 
be trusted to make these decisions by themselves. Unduly swayed by whim 
and bias, bribed in endless ways by the manufacturers of expensive drugs and 
tools, incentivized to give themselves more business, EBM proponents say 
we must take these choices out of their hands and give them to a panel of 
experts, who can review with time and distance what solid scientific studies 
say actually works and does not. 

I’ve made it sound like I’m on the side of the scientific mass, but I’m really not. 
Is there any evidence that evidence-based medicine really works? Everything 
I’ve seen is shockingly inconclusive. 



There have been big benefits from smaller interventions — giving doctors 
tools to encourage them to do the right things. Atul Gawande has been 
the greatest chronicler of such programs, from forceful reminders to wash 
your hands 1 to careful checklists before surgery . 2 But for the most part such 
programs aid doctors, not overrule them. This is good politics, but it’s also 
good science: everyone rebels against direct instruction. 

I think we have a choice to make. Doctors can be simply told what to do — in 
which case, why require all those years of med school? why not write down 
all the rules and instructions and let any random nurse follow them? — or 
they can be taught the lessons of the science but allowed to practice it on 
their own. They can be show their own human frailties and biases, the huge 
value that comes from following the proven rules, trained in the common 
fallacies of probability andstatistics,but in the end, allowed to make the final 
judgment for themselves. We can screen out those who fail to learn these 
lessons, but if we can’t, at the end of the process, trust them to make their 
own decisions, why even bother to have doctors at all? 

Medicine is the field where this is clearest, but the same tension has come 
to teaching as well — every student is the same, every student is different. 
We once allowed each teacher to direct their classroom in their own way, 
but high-stakes tests and “value-added” measurements now force all of them 
into the same mold. 

Isn’t this a good thing, demands Matt Yglesias? We have science that shows 
good teaching can make a huge difference in people’s lives — doesn’t everyone 
deserve the benefits that come from having a good teacher? He dismisses 
the stories of the individual horrors that result from this process as mere 
anecdote — inevitably in imposing a one-size-fits-all solution there will be some 
negative side effects for a few, but the benefits for the many outweigh the costs. 
Again, I have tried to put this position in its most favorable light (I hope Matt will 
correct me if I’ve failed) but I’m flabbergasted by its callous naivete. The problem 
with allowing hard incentive systems to squeeze out individual judgment is 
inevitably that people begin trying to game the system — they cheat on the tests, 
they coach students on the answers, they cut recess and art for more drill-and- 
skill.To dismiss the on-the-ground evidence 3 of how badly these tests hurt kids, 
in favor of some Olympian view of the benefits of rising test scores, is ludicrous 
when the on-the-ground view is telling you the test scores are actually bogus. 



Fine, Matt says, that just means we need to crack down on cheating. (This is 
always the first response of the incentive designer — we just need to improve 
the incentive system!) The fact that a couple teachers cheat on their students’ 
tests is no reason to give up on all the benefits better teachers can being. And 
that’s true, but blatant cheating is just the tip of the iceberg. 

In medicine, we can at least measure whether people get healthy. A doctor 
with some radical new treatment can prove she’s right by testing it against 
the previous best answer and showing it works better. And we want brilliant 
teachers to do the same: to come up with innovative new ways of teaching 
students and prove they work better than the old stale system. But the ultimate 
goal of school is much less clear and more disputed — is it to create orderly 
little capitalist worker bees or curious independent thinkers? 

Matt says please, we don't need to enter into this debate. I’m only talking about 
the fundamentals — basic literacy and arithmetic. But I don’t think that really 
helps. What good is learning to read if, by the end, you hate doing it? 

One solution is to measure students by real results, rather than artificial 
tests. Can a child read and understand? Ask them to tell you about the books 
they’ve read lately. (This was how my library’s summer reading program 
tested whether you actually read the books you claimed. Apparently I didn’t 
understand most of Snow Crash as a kid, but I loved reading it anyway.) Or, 
better yet, ask them a question that involves doing some research and see if 
they can look up and read the answer. 

For math, ask them to build something that involves a little calculation, 
or make change, or any of the real-world activities these isolated skills are 
supposed to be actually useful for. What you learn from that will be much 
more revealing than which bubbles kids fill in on a sheet. 

The other alternative is to put your trust in teachers, to assume they can tell 
the difference between a class that’s learning and a class that isn’t, and then 
give them a chance to do better. Take them to some of the best-run classes 
in the world and let them absorb the lessons for themselves. Have them meet 
regularly with their fellow teachers and discuss how they can make their 
teaching better. This is the humane response to those who want to reduce 
teaching to a rote question of merely reading off a script (no joke — this is 



literally what happens in the most test-driven schools... because, after all, 
science shows the script is best for test scores). 

In both cases, I sympathize with the humane aims: I don’t want doctors to 
become shills for pharmaceutical companies, I don’t want poor kids to grow 
up unable to read. But I blanch at the inhumane means proposed to carry 
them out. As Seeing Like a State describes, the history of high modernist 
utopian projects has not been a pretty one. The quest for policy designers, then, 
is how to promote huge positive changes without crushing the individuals 
involved underfoot. 

April 6 , 2011 

1 . http : / /www . amazon . com/Better-A-Surgeons-Notes-Perf ormance/ 

2 . http : / /www. amazon . com/The-Checklist-Manifesto-Things-Right/ 

3 . http : / /www. amazon . com/Tested-American-School-Struggles-Grade/ 

4 . http : / /www. amazon . com/ Seeing-Like-State-Institution-University/ 





We live in a society where it’s almost impossible to give science too much 
credit. Ever since the atom bomb and the space race, it’s just been taken 
for granted that civilization advances through the progress of science. 
Science — we are told — grows our food, cures our diseases, creates our 
new technologies, and just generally propels the human race forward. 

If science is the engine of progress, then those who have not been captured 
under its spell must be dusty relics of prejudice and caprice. Fields under the 
sway of hidebound tradition must be bulldozed and renovated in the image 
of science. Thus doctors, instead of making decisions by random whim, must 
be forced to practice “evidence-based medicine”where all their prescriptions 
are backed by randomized controlled trials. Policymakers, instead of just being 
bleeding-heart do-gooders, must temper their enthusiasm for regulation by 
doing cost-benefit analyses to see if their proposals make sense. Managers, 
instead of following their intuition, must subject their strategies to rigorous 
experiment — through A/B tests in the market. 

But what’s weird about this mania for science is how unscientific it all is. 
As far as I know, no studies have shown that evidence-based medicine leads 
to better patient outcomes or that companies which practice comprehensive 
A/B testing are more profitable than those which follow their intuition. And 
the evidence that science is responsible for stuff like increased life expectancy 
is surprisingly weak. 

But there’s such a mania for science that even asking these questions 
seems absurd. How could there possibly be evidence against evidence-based 
medicine? The whole idea seems like a contradiction in terms. But it is not. 

Recent decades have seen science encroach on the kitchen, with scientific 
approaches to cooking and cuisine. Where other chefs might simply follow 
instructions they found on a yellowing scrap of paper, the new modernists 
seek to understand the physics behind their actions. This approach has led to 
some interesting new techniques, but it’s also led us to understand that some 



of those silly traditions aren’t so silly after all. 

Eggs, for example, were often beaten in copper bowls. Why copper bowls? 
Chefs might have been able to give you some kind of reason, but it would 
have sounded silly to scientific ears. But the modernists discovered that the 
ions in the copper ended up forming complex bonds with the conalbumin 
in the eggs. 

This was not something that chefs had ever established as scientific 
knowledge — no aproned Isaac Newton ever discovered this was the right 
way to cook the eggs — but it was knowledge chefs had nonetheless. It was, 
in Polyani’s phrase, tacit knowledge, part of the things society genuinely knew 
but was never able to write down or clearly prove. 

Scientism systematically destroys tacit knowledge. If chefs were forced to 
follow “evidence-based cooking”, not using anything special like a copper 
bowl until their was a peer-reviewed double-blind randomized controlled 
trial proving its effectiveness, the result surely would be worse food. So why 
is it crazy to believe the same attitude leads to worse medicine? 

In business, too, scientism could be quite destructive. Can Steve Jobs provide 
a proof for the rightness of every iPhone feature? Can Doug Bowman do 
a scientific experiment to justify his every shade of blue 1 ? Forcing them to 
could well make their work far worse instead of better. 

Scientism even fails just within our own heads. If you’re struggling with a 
decision, we’re taught to approach it more “scientifically”, by systematically 
enumerating pros and cons and trying to weight and balance them. That’s 
what Richard Feynman would do, right? Well, studies have shown that this 
sort of explicit approach repeatable leads to worse decisions than just going 
with your gut. Why? Presumably for the same reason: your gut is full of 
tacit knowledge that it’s tough to articulate and write down. Just focusing 
on the stuff you can make explicit means throwing away everything else you 
know — destroying your tacit knowledge. 

Of course, there’s no guarantee that just trusting your gut will work either. 
Intuition and tradition are often just as wrong as scientific cluelessness. And 
in the cases where they genuinely have little to contribute, throwing them 



away (or quarantining it until it’s proven by scientific test) might not be such 
a bad idea. But I’ve always just assumed that this was always true — that 
tradition and intuition had nothing to contribute, unless carefully coached 
by scientific practice. That science was the only way to get knowledge, rather 
than just another way of codifying it. Now, instead of throwing it all away, 
I’m now thinking I ought to spend more time finding ways to harness all 
that tacit knowledge. 

August to, 2012 

1 . http : / / stopdesign . com/ archive/2 009/03/20/ goodbye-google . html 






SF Gate: All Hail Creative Commons: Stanford professor and author Lawrence 
Lessig plans a legal insurrection 1 . 

Today I’ve been given permission to announce that I’m working on the 
Creative Commons project as an RDF Advisor. I can’t say what I’m doing 
except that it involves RDF and I’m advising them on it. Details on what 
the project is about are in the article above. They’re very kindly flying me to 
O'Reillys Emerging Technology Conference 1 (what the P2P hackers bitterly call 
“Emerging Fads”) where the project will be making its debut splash 3 . BTW, 
it looks to be a very exciting conference. I put together a long list of people 
I’m looking forward to seeing 4 . 

Some choice quotes: 

Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig ’s Creative Commons intends 
to produce “flexible, customizable intellectual-property licenses that 
artists, writers, programmers and others can obtain free of charge to 
legally define what constitutes acceptable uses of their work.” 

Technical Architect, Lisa Rein, discusses and demonstrates how the 
project uses JavaScript, Perl, HTML, and XML to create a web-based 
application for generating metadata, associated with digital works in a 
machine-readable format. The metadata corresponds to innovative and 
flexible licenses designed to help creators of intellectual works share their 
work with the public on generous terms. Search engines, file sharing 
applications, digital rights management tools, and other emerging 
technologies recognize the terms on which those works may be used. 

March 05, 2002 

1 . 

Stanford-professor-2874018 .php 

2 . 

3 . http : / / conferences . oreillynet . com/ cs/et2 002/ view/ e_sess/23 7 6 

4 . http://blogspace.eom/swhack/weblog/2002/03/05/#il015313089.384566 




I just read a wonderful article by Jed Rubenfeld 1 : The Freedom of Imagination: 
Copyright’s Constitutionality 2 [via Felten 3 ]. 

Imagine a country where reciting a poem in public could get you thrown in jail, 
the article suggests. You live in that country. Copyright law, of course, prevents 
public performance of a copyrighted work like a poem. 

The article convincingly argues that copyright’s restriction on derivative 
works is a clear violation of the First Amendment. It shoots down the five 
common arguments to the contrary: 

• “Copyright is an enumerated power, so it is immune from the bill of 
rights.” Rights trump powers, not vice versa. Outlawing interstate 
Bible sales would be unconstitutional, even though interstate 
commerce is an enumerated power. 

• “Copyright only regulates the expression, not the idea. ’’The idea 
behind “Fuck The Draft” can also be expressed in different ways, but 
the court ruled that the expression (even though it used profanity 
when it was unnecessary to communicate the idea) was protected. 

• “Fair use prevents copyright from violating the First Amendment.” 
Fair use does exactly the opposite. A law prohibiting all 

speech except that criticizing the government would clearly be 
unconstitutional, but fair use only protects derivative works that 
parody the original (and some other exceptions). 

• “Copyright creates more speech overall, so it is in the First 
Amendment’s interest.” We don’t make First Amendment 
judgements on these terms. Banning books creates more speech 
(from the uproar about the ban) but that’s no excuse to ban books. 

• “Copyright is just another form of property. You have no First 
Amendment right to trample on my property.” Trampling on your 
property is illegal not for expressive reasons but for practical ones. 

(It’s not allowed even when it’s not expressive.) Infringing on your 
copyright is aimed at preventing certain forms of expression. Were 



you to do the same infringing activity (say, publishing a book) but 
with different content, it would be permitted. 

The author goes on to suggest a form of copyright that would be 
constitutionally-permissible. Instead of preventing or punishing those who 
express derivative works, it could require that they pay a portion of their profits 
to the author. This wouldn’t prevent anyone speaking (by definition, profit 
is a gain; taking it away would make you no worse off than if you had never 
done the thing at all) and would allow people to give away modified works 
for free, but would give authors what many feel is a just return for their work. 

In this world, anyone could make Harry Potter into a movie or stage show, 
as long as they paid J. K. Rowling a portion of the money the make. Different 
adaptations and interpretation of the works would flourish; the public would 
get a chance to experience all sorts of new creative expression, here-to-fore 
impossible. This makes sound policy sense to me: the public gets the right to 
express it self, and creators of intellectual works get paid. But, as the author 
points out, it’s irrelevant what you think of it as policy; it’s required by our 

Finally, the author presents a unified theory of the First Amendment: it 
protects the freedom to imagine, express what you’ve imagined, and listen 
to that expression. It doesn’t protect the right to misrepresent what you’ve 
imagined as fact (thus libel, perjury, and false advertising laws), nor does 
it protect the right to act out your imagination (you can’t break someone’s 
nose to express what you imagine a broken nose feels like). However, it does 
protect the freedom to imagine alternate beliefs (thus freedom of religion) or 
alternate governments (thus petitioning for a redress of grievances). 

Back to the subject of copyright, it doesn’t protect those who copy others 
works verbatim (that requires no imagination) but it does protect those 
who perform it, rework it, or express it — those who add their own spark 
of creativity to that which has come before. It’s time for copyright law to 
stop suffocating the resulting flame and let it grow, as the First Amendment 

[I’m sure I cannot do justice to the cogent and well-expressed arguments of 
this fifty-page paper, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of them. If you’re 



interested, I recommend you read it for yourself.] 

December 07, 2002 

5 . http : / /www . law . yale . edu/ outside/html/ faculty / jr 73 / profile . htm 

6 . http: / / .html 

7 . http: / /www. 00 02 12 .html 




Over on Doc Searls’ DG, Timothy Philips makes a really profound 
statement 1 : “Copyright law exists to enlarge the public domain. That’s all.” 

On its face it seemed false to me, which is why it’s so interesting. Copyright 
law is certainly counter-intuitive — we lock things up so that more things will 
be free? It’s very close to the GPL in fact — the GPL adds more restrictions 
so that other works will have less. 

Certainly current copyright law hasn’t lived up to these goals. The public 
domain hasn’t gotten much larger since 1929! This statement is a concise way 
of explaining why copyright must serve the public and protect progress and 
it certainly makes you think. Thanks, Timothy. 

It seems clear to me that this is the next battle. Once we’ve stopped the absurd 
regulations like the DMCA and Coble’s bill, we need to go back and remove 
all the crud that’s been added to copyright law over the years. I’d love to see 
it pushed back to fourteen years, renewable once. Even retroactively — that’d 
show them! Stay tuned. 

[For crying out loud Dave 2 , [the Berman-Coble bill] is super simple. If I 
build a house and people try to sleep in it I can kick them out.] 

August 28, 2002 

1 . http: //doc. weblogs. com/discuss/msgReader$22 67 ?mode=day 

2 . http : / / scriptingnews . userland . com/backissues/2 002/08/2 8#When : 2 : 54 : 0 0 




Lessig’s latest post , please, no philosophy 1 , explains why he thinks source code 
escrow is important. Here’s a reformulation of the argument: 

• 1. Copyright law restricted copies, but in return required that the 
government hold onto a copy and let others make copies when that 
copyright expired. 

• 2. Now copyright law restricts modifications too. In return, it should 
require that the government let others make copies when the 
copyright expires. 

• 3. With books, it’s not so difficult to make modifications from the 
printed copy. But with software, it’s nearly impossible: you’ll probably 
end up rewriting much of the source code to get things to work right. 

• [3a. Some have suggested this is analogous to making writers give 
their brains to the public. This is wrong: writers already distribute 
their work in a form that’s easy to modify — a form that’s rarely 
different from what the writer used themselves. 

• 3b. A better analogy is that of an architect’s plans: you can “reverse- 
engineer” a building (take pictures, walk around, maybe punch some holes 
in the walls) but if you want to modify it and make a derivative building, 
you’ll probably end up recreating the plans and addingyour modifications.] 

• 4. To best let others make modifications of software, the government 
must ensure that the source code is made available when the 
copyright is up. The best way to do this is with source code escrow. 

November 07, 2002 

1 . http: //cyberlaw. Stanford. edu/ lessig/blog/archives/2 002_1 1 . 





Mark Bernstein, who should know better, argues that software should be 
charged for 1 . 1 hear this a lot, but it ignores the underlying reality of how 
software is made. (In fact, it reminds me of the people who argue that the 
Internet should be pay-per-bit because, hey, look at all those bits being used 
up!) Producing software only costs a bunch of time, once. 

There are a number of ways you can get that time: the author could already 
have a living (a lot of the best software is written this way, by professors or 
by programmers in their free time), his salary can be paid by some or all 
of the users who commission the software, or the software can be written 
speculatively and the cost can be paid back slowly by individual users. 

All of these are perfectly valid ways of getting to write software, yet Mark 
(and others) imply that the first two (free time and commissioned) are 
somehow less valid than others. 

I would argue (rather controversially) that the last might be less valid. It 
allows authors of popular things to make far more money than those who 
make less popular ones, even if they put in the same amount of work. 

We don’t see this outside of the creative world: the man who paves the LA 
freeway makes roughly the same as the man who paves the little dead-end 
street outside my house, even though the LA freeway is used a great deal 
more often. 

What’s the benefit of society paying all this extra money? The traditional 
one seems to be to offset the costs of speculation. The author of speculative 
software takes the risk that no one will buy it, and he’ll lose everything he 
spent creating it. In exchange, he gets the reward that if it’s really popular 
he’ll make far more then he spent to create it, hopefully enough to subsidize 
his failures. 

This seems like a realy stupid and inefficient system to me, and while I’m not 



sure how to replace it in every case, it seems like it should be avoided when 
possible. That’s why I don’t understand it when Mark denigrates the systems 
we’ve come up with for replacing it. If anything, it’s the system of speculation 
(and its high costs to society) that should be denigrated. 

Mark, as someone developing software speculatively, may not want to call 
attention to the money he could be unfairly taking from society through this 
system. But Mark’s software seems to be exactly the niche product which 
would benefit from an alternate system. So what keeps him attached to this 
one? Is it the dream of writing the Great American Program and striking 
it rich? 

May 26, 2003 

1 . http: / / .html#note_34865 




A reporter asked me to describe what the early days of our startup were like. Here’s 
my response. 

In the early days of Reddit, there were four of us crammed into a dingy little 
three-bedroom apartment (I slept in a kitchen cabinet). Every morning wed 
wake up and stumble into the small space that I think was supposed to be a 
living room, where wed placed desks along all four walls (Steve’s wall had a 
small window, with a beautiful view of the wall of the next building over, just 
a couple feet away). The sky would be gray, the floor would be filthy, and wed 
be three feet floors away from the rest of the world. Looking back, it’s hard 
to see how we got any work done. Actually, looking back, I’m not sure we did. 

Aside from the filth, my memories of those days mostly consist of an 
unending series of petty annoyances and frustrations. It’s hard spending your 
working days in such close quarters with other people. It’s even harder when 
you spend your nights there too. And it’s almost impossible when you’re all 
high-strung socially-awkward geeks. Tensions frequently flared. 

Not that there wasn’t a lot to get flared about. There were always bugs or 
complaints or new features you just couldn’t get to work. And when you finally 
got the site working fine, a new storm of traffic would overwhelm things and 
you’d be back to picking up the pieces, making it run faster and more reliably. 

There were lots of problems, but somehow we got over them. Take a nap, 
walk the fifteen minutes into town to get some food, go across the street to 
the abandoned playground, or, when things got really bad, just look at that 
ever-growing traffic graph. We must be doing something right, we figured, 
or at least not doing much that’s particularly wrong. 

While behind the scenes work was a disaster, in public things were going 
great. Every time we went out, more people seemed to know what Reddit was. 
We started selling Reddit t-shirts and people wearing them and recognizing 
started to pop up over town. One fan, on a short trip to Boston, even made 



a pilgrimage to our apartment and stole the Reddit sticker off our door. (We 
only found out where the missing sticker had gone when he bragged about 
it on his blog.) Reddit heads started appearing on more and more weblogs 
and sites I read started talking about Reddit as if they assumed everyone 
already knew what it was. 

At parties, the awkwardness of trying to tell people what we did for a living 
(“We, uh, build a website. You know, it’s kind of a news-type website.”) gave 
way to recognition (“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that site.”), and then to profuse 
thanks for a great time-waster. Towards the end, actual introductions became 
unnecessary — people started recognizing us and coming up to say hi. 

When I went home to visit my family, my dad insisted on setting up a 
meeting for me with a magazine publisher he knew. I was sure the visit would 
be a disaster — why would a magazine publisher take a punk kid like me 
seriously? — but once she heard our monthly visitor numbers, she was eager 
to start a partnership. The same scene repeated itself over and over. 

Even when people had no idea what we did, the traffic gave us confidence. 
Once we won a free meal at a restaurant (actually, we won at least three 
different times) in exchange for suffering through a short lecture about 
financial planning opportunities. As the man talked about being sure to put 
money away for a safe day, we looked at each other knowingly. Either we’d 
sell big or blow up entirely. Staying safe just wasn’t in our vocabulary. 

November 7, 2006 






Millions of people want to download music for, essentially, free. The record 
companies don’t want them to do this, and claim that they’re losing money 
and threaten to sue you into oblivion. How do we reconcile these two? One 
proposal is compulsory licensing. 

The basic idea is that a large portion of the population pays a relatively 
small tax to the government who then gives it to the artists whose work is 
downloaded. Terry Fisher says that with a small tax on CD burners, DVD 
burners, DSL, and cable modems (costing the average family ~$50,less than 
they spend on DVDs and CDs) could pay for all the music and movies plus 
a 20% bureaucratic overhead. 

Assuming this could be made to work, people could be convinced to accept 
it, and Congress could pass it, there are still three problems which can’t all 
be solved. 


Some proposals suggest that we simply monitor everyone’s Internet 
connection (or, usually, get the ISPs to do it) and send the results to the 
government. I think this is an unacceptable invasion on privacy. It’s bad enough 
we have to have Carnivore watching our packets and describing our emails 
when law enforcement gets a warrant, but now you want the government 
to keep track of all the music and movies we download, all the time? I don’t 
think that’s going to fly. 


OK, they say, we won’t watch everyone’s computers. We’ll just use sampling. 
This has worked well in other media. TV networks, for example, make money 
off of advertising. They charge for ads based on how many people watch the 



shows. They figure out how many people watch the shows using Nielsen 
ratings. Nielsen ratings are calculated by getting a small percentage of the 
population to install a set-top box which monitors what they watch and when 
and sends the results back to Nielsen. 

(This has some interesting effects, among which is the fact that boycotts 
of shows only have a real effect insofar as the boycotters are Nielsen homes. 
This means that as long as you’re not a Nielsen home, you can boycott a show 
and still watch it.) 

(“Sweeps week” is a similar phenomenon but on a somewhat smaller scale. 
Each individual TV station (like our local NBC affiliate, WMAQ) sells 
advertising also, so they need to know how many people locally watch the 
shows. But each little station can’t afford to do the Nielsen thing, so they do 
something similar with paper diaries that they send out one week of the year. 
But they all do it on the same week (sweeps week) so the networks purposely 
introduce big guest stars and major cliffhangers that week to get more people 
to watch the show.) 

This sounds good, and it works reasonably well for TV, but it won’t work 
on the Internet. Popularity on the Internet doesn’t follow the old rules, it 
follows something called a power law. (Thanks to Kevin Marks for pointing 
out this issue to me.) For example, the number of visitors to web pages 
follows a power law: 

A graph of number of sites against number of users in log-log, showing a 
practically straight line. 

The point of this graph (see next page) is that there are hundreds of thousands 
of sites with tens of users and tens of sites with hundreds of thousands of 
users. And there are tens of thousands of sites with hundreds of users, and 
thousands of sites with thousands of users and so on. 

Sampling can’t cope with this kind of disparity. It can deal when there are a small 
number of known groups who make up a very small amount of the population 
(just seek out those groups specifically). But it can’t deal when there’s a large 
number of unknown groups who each make up a very small amount of the 
population (like the tons of small websites, each with a small but loyal fanbase). 



graph from Zipf, Power-laws, and Pareto - a ranking tutorial 

Who cares about these people? you may say. But while each of these groups 
have small fanbases individually, collectively they make up a significant 
portion, if not a majority, of the overall system. In other words, if you count 
these guys out you’ll be doubling the amount of money folks like Britney 
Spears get over what they deserve. 

Britney Spears seems to be doing just fine with the current system. If all we’re 
doing is helping her, why are we going to all this trouble. And furthermore, 
if you’re going to tax me to pay the artists I listen to, it’s a little unfair if none 
of that money goes to the ones I actually care about. 


Fine, fine, they say, if they read this far. How about we just have people 
submit the songs they listen to anonymously? People want their favorite 
artists to be paid, so they’ll be happy to. 

Yeah, but that’s exactly the problem. People want their favorite artists to 
be paid, especially when those artists are themselves. What stops me from 



anonymously submitting that 1M people listened to my band and waiting 
for the money to roll in? Small things like that will get lost in the noise. 

Even if the system isn’t anonymous (so we ’re forgetting about privacy) you 
still have this problem. An enterprising MIT student, taking advantage of the 
fact that MIT has 16. 5M IP addresses to themselves, writes a little program 
to pretend to be a whole bunch of MIT students who all have decided that 
his band is their new favorite. Again, it’ll get lost in the noise of MIT and 
the money will roll in. 

It doesn’t seem right to tax Americans and give their money to fraudsters, 
no matter how clever the fraudsters are. It’ll be really hard to eliminate fraud, 
and when it’s so easy and anonymous, it’ll be more widespread than anything 
we’ve seen before. 


I’ve gone through all the compulsory licensing scenarios, and I always 
seem to get stuck on one (or more) of these issues. If anyone’s found a way 
to eliminate all of them, please let me know! 

July 29, 2003 




In mjd’s 1 talk “Mailing List Judo” (removed from the Web due to its evil 
content), he gives several strategies for getting your changes into Perl. The 
key point is that you only need to convince one person to accept your patch: 
the patch pumpkin. (The patch pumpkin is the one who folds patches into 
the official distribution of Perl.) Everyone else can be reasonably ignored. 

With many standards projects, the process is reasonably similar. The group’s 
output takes the form of a set of documents, each of which is controlled by one or 
two people (the Editors) who fold in changes and maintain the official version. 
There’s sometimes also a dispute-resolution process (voting, consensus, etc.) if 
the editor doesn’t know what to put in or the group disagrees with the editor. 

The genius of Sam’s wiki 2 was that there was no editor. Thought something 
was ugly? Change it. Think the text needed clarification? Clarify it. Sometimes 
disputes spilled out into separate pages but for the most part the process 
worked amazingly well. 

But the process failed when it came to the big unresolved disputes. What 
should we name it? Should we encode HTML? There were polls but people 
didn’t trust them. There were discussions but they never came to consensus. 
And often the loudest or most persistent voice would win by pushing their 
opponent to exhaustion. Unfortunately the most persistent voice is often the 
least experienced. 

As we’ve begun to write actual specs, things have gotten even worse. Joe 
Gregorio and Mark Nottingham have become traditional editors of the API 
and feed format respectively. Sam Ruby and Mark Pilgrim took control of 
the spec by declaring milestones and updating their validator accordingly. The 
Wiki was turned into a unavigable swamp of a discussion forum for the drafts 
edited by other people. It’s less than clear how to be a real part of the core group. 

It’s not too late to turn things around. Specs could be moved back into the 
wiki until they’re nearly done. Editors, instead of being gatekeepers, could be 



helpful moderators. A clear process for making controvertial decisions could 
be decided on. And the validator could follow consensus instead of leading 
it. But do the people running the show want this? 

Standards bodies tread a fine line between organizations for the public 
good and shelters for protecting collusion that would be otherwise illegal 
under antitrust law. For the dominent vendors involved, the goal is to give 
the illusion of openness while giving themselves full control to enforce their 
will behind the scenes. 

The IETF is a good example of this. Often lauded by the public as a model 
of openness and and and freedom, the reality is that working group chairs, 
appointed by a self-elected ruling board, get away with declaring whatever 
they want (usually an inferior and difficult to implement alternative) as “rough 
consensus”, routinely ignoring comments from the public and objections from 
working group members. One working group (in charge of DNS extentsions) 
went so far as to censor mail from working group members 3 . The dictators 
running the IETF, when informed, didn’t seem to mind. 

Is the same sort of thing at work in the Pie/Echo/ Atom Project? It appears 
so at first glance: Sam running the show from behind the scenes, putting 
friends in charge of the specs (although that isn’t what actually happened). The 
lack of a dispute-resolution process only makes things worse: when there’s no 
clear guide on how to make decisions or contributions, it’s far from obvious 
how to challenge a decision Sam has made. 

There’s no question that the group takes contributions from outsiders but 
they need to make it clearer that you can be part of the development process. 
I think moving specs onto the wiki will reinvigorate work and setting up a 
dispute resolution process will help us start moving forward, instead of stuck 
here where no decisions have been “final”. The group seems to have fallen 
into a rut. I want to help them get out of it. 

August 20, 2003 


2 . http : / / intertwingly . net/wiki/pie/ 

3 . http : //cr . yp . to/ d jbdns/namedroppers . html 




Yay, Infogami is finally out. (If you don’t know what Infogami is, go check 
out the front page.) 


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I began working on Infogami last summer, as part of the first batch of Y 
Combinator startups. At the end of the summer we had a working prototype 
and a number of offers for funding. Things were going so well I took a leave 
of absence from college to work on it. 

But getting funding, as I hope to describe in later posts, wasn’t as easy as I 
thought. I spent the next few months working full-time chasing funding offers, 
but eventually they all fell apart. I found myself stuck without any money, 
any partners, or any place to live. The whole experience was incredibly trying. 
There were many days when I felt like my head was going to literally explode. 

One Sunday I decided I’d finally had enough of it. I went to talk to Paul 



Graham, the only person who had kept me going through these months. “This 
is it,” I told him. “If I don’t get either funding, a partner, or an apartment by 
the end of this week, I’m giving up.” Paul did his best to talk me out of it and 
come up with solutions, but I still couldn’t see any way out. 

The next night I had dinner with Paul and his friends. They noted my 
birthday was tomorrow and asked me what I wanted. I thought for a moment 
about what I wanted most. “A cofounder,” I finally said. We all laughed. 

The next morning was my birthday and I was awakened by a knock on 
the door from Paul. “I thought of a solution to your problem,” he exclaimed 
with his inimitable energy. “Merge with Reddit! ’’“That’s an interesting idea,” 
I said, still picking the sleep out of my eyes. As we discussed it, we just got 
more and more excited — it seemed like such a perfect fit. I still can’t even 
imagine a better solution. 

Steve “spez” Huffman and Alexis “knOthing” Ohanian, the team behind 
Reddit, also liked the idea and we began working together that very day. 
Immediately, we could see things were going to work out great. We also got 
Steve and Alexis’s housemate, Chris “KeyserSosa” Slowe, a Harvard physics 
Ph.D. student, to join the team. Together, we felt unstoppable. 

Last month, when we got back from winter break, we began working on 
Infogami in earnest. It was clear that the prototype I’d built would never work 
for any serious site, so Steve built an amazing new industrial-strength database 
system while I built the software to talk to it. Unfortunately this amazing 
system is pretty much invisible to the outside world, but it’s going to allow us 
to quickly build software that’s more advanced than anything else out there. 

Last week we moved over to the new system, proving that it 
can handle a lot of users. With that finally finished, I decided I had to get 
Infogami up as soon as possible. Normally, we’d spend another couple months 
working on the software before we’d show it to the public, but I just couldn’t 
wait much longer. So we decided to work like crazy for a week and launch 
whatever we had after seven days. 

Obviously there’s lots more work to do — right now we only have the most 
basic of features. But instead of continuing to work on it behind closed doors, 



we’re going to try something different: we’re going to build it in public. 

There’s tons of stuff left to build, including lots of things we can copy over 
from my original prototype. But more importantly, we want to hear what 
you want. Send us feedback and if you have an idea for Infogami, post it to 
our reddit where other users can vote it up and down. We’ll try to implement 
the most popular requests. 

Here’s my goal: something new for Infogami every weekday. Some days it’ll 
just be a blog post or a bug fix. But most days, we’ll try to add a whole new 
feature. I hope you’ll stay tuned. 

March 1, 2004 




2012 note: This article was first published, in 2005. After it was published, Django 
launched a RemovingTheMagic project to address some of my criticisms (though 
personally I still find it unusable), inspired FriendFeed’s tornado.web 
and Google’s gae. webapp and others ( though I still prefer, and this article 
led to a permanent surge in Reddit traffic that still hasn’t really stopped growing. 

Over at, we rewrote the site from Lisp to Python in 
the past week. It was pretty much done in one weekend. 
(Disclosure: We used my library.) The others knew Lisp 
(they wrote their whole site in it) and they knew Python (they rewrote their 
whole site in it) and yet they decided liked Python better for this project. The 
Python version had less code that ran faster and was far easier to read and 

The idea that there is something better than Lisp is apparently inconceivable 
to some, judging from comments on the reddit blog. The Lispers instead 
quickly set about trying to find the real reason behind the switch. 

One assumed it must have been divine intervention, since “there seems to 
be no other reason for switching to an inferior language.” Another figured 
something else must be going on: “Could this be... a lie? To throw off 
competition? It’s not as though Paul Graham hasn’t hinted at this tactic in 
his essays. . .’’Another chimed in: “I decided it was a prank.” Another suggested 
the authors simply wanted more “cut corners, hacks, and faked artisanship.” 

These were, of course, extreme cases. Others assumed there must have 
been outside pressure. “Either libraries or hiring new programmers I guess.” 
Another concluded: “some vc suit wants a maintainable-by-joe-programmer 
product. I hope he pays you millions.” 

The Lisp newsgroup, comp.lang.lisp, was upset about the switch that they’re 
currently planning to write a competitor to reddit in Lisp, to show how right 
they are or something. 



The more sane argued along the lines of saying Lisp’s value lies in being 
able to create new linguistic constructs and that for something like a simple 
web app, this isn’t necessary, since the constructs have been already built. But 
even this isn’t true, was built pretty much from scratch and uses all 
sorts of “new linguistic constructs” and — even better — these constructs 
have syntax that goes along with them and makes them reasonably readable. 
Sure, Python isn’t Perl 6, so you can’t add arbitrary syntax, but you can often 
find a clever way to get the job done. 

Python, on the other hand, has problems of its own. The biggest is that it 
has dozens of web application frameworks, but none of them are any good. 
Pythonists are well aware of the first part but apparently not of the second, 
since when I tell them that Pm using my own library, the universal response 
is “I don’t think Python needs another web application framework”. Yes, 
Python needs fewer web application frameworks. But it also needs one that 
doesn’t suck. 

The framework that seems most promising is Django and indeed we 
initially attempted to rewrite Reddit in it. As the most experienced Python 
programmer, I tried my best to help the others out. 

Django seemed great from the outside: a nice-looking website, intelligent and 
talented developers, and a seeming surplus of nice features. The developers and 
community are extremely helpful and responsive to patches and suggestions. 
And all the right goals are espoused in their philosophy documents and FAQs. 
Unfortunately, however, they seem completely incapable of living up to them. 

While Django claims that it’s “loosely coupled”, using it pretty much requires 
fitting your code into Django’s worldview. Django insists on executing your 
code itself, either through its command-line utility or a specialized server 
handler called with the appropriate environment variables and Python path. 
When you start a project, by default Django creates folders nested four levels 
deep for your code and while you can move around some files, I had trouble 
figuring out which ones and how. 

Django’s philosophy says “Explicit is better than implicit”, but Django has 
all sorts of magic. Database models you create in one file magically appear 
someplace else deep inside the Django module with a different name. When 



your model function is called, new things have been added to its variable- 
space and old ones removed. (I’m told they’re currently working on fixing 
both of these, though.) 

Another Django goal is “less code”, at least for you. But Django is simply 
full of code. Inside the django module are 10 different folders and inside 
each of those are a few more. By the time you actually build a site in the 
Django tutorial, you’ve imported django.core.meta, django. models. polls, 
django.conf.ur Is .defaults . d jango. utils .httpwrappers .HttpResponse, 
and d jango. core, extensions. render_to_response. It’s not clear how anyone is 
supposed to remember all that, especially since there appear to be no guiding 
principles for what goes where or how it’s named. Three of these are inserted 
automatically by the start scripts, but you still need to memorize such names 
for every other function you want to use. 

But Django’s most important problem is that its developers seem incapable of 
designing a decent API. They’re clearly capable Python programmers — their 
code uses all sorts of bizarre tricks. And they’re clearly able to write code 
that works — they have all sorts of interesting features. But they can’t seem 
to shape this code into something that other people can use. 

Their APIs are ugly and regularly missing key features: the database API 
figures out queries by counting underscores but has no special syntax for 
JOINs, the template system requires four curly braces around every variable 
and can’t do any sort of computation, the form API requires 15 lines to process 
a form and can’t automatically generate the template. 

I tried my best to fix things — and the Django community was extremely 
supportive — but the task simply dwarfed me. I just couldn’t do it mentally, let 
alone with the time constraints of having to actually build my own application 
for my own startup. 

And so, Lisp and Django found wanting, we’re left with I’d like to 
say that learned from these mistakes and was designed to avoid them, 
but the truth is that was written long before all this and managed to 
avoid them anyway. 

The way I wrote was simple: I imagined how things should work 



and then I made that happen. Sometimes making things just work takes a lot 
of code. Sometimes it only takes a little. But either way, that fact is hidden 
from the user — they just get the ideal API. 

So how should things work? The first principle is that code should be clear 
and simple. If you want to output some text, you call web. output. If you want 
to get form input, you call web. input. There’s nothing particularly hard to 

The second principle is that should fit your code, not the other way 
around. Every function in is completely independent, you can use 
whichever ones you want. You can put your files wherever you like, and web. 
py will happily follow along. If you want a piece of code to be run as a web 
app, you call, you don’t put your code in the magical place so that can run you. 

The third principle is that should, by default, do the right thing by 
the Web. This means distinguishing between GET and POST properly. It 
means simple, canonical URLs which synonyms redirect to. It means readable 
HTML with the proper HTTP headers. 

And that, as far as I’m concerned, are pretty much all the principles you 
need. They seem pretty simple and obvious to me and I’m even willing to 
fudge on some of them, but no other Python web app framework seems to 
even come close. (If you know of one, tell me and I’ll happily recant. I don’t 
want to be in this business.) Until then, it looks like Pm forced to do that 
horrible thing I’d rather not do: release one more Python web application 
framework into the world. 

December 6, 2005 




New technology quickly becomes so pervasive that it’s sometimes hard 
to remember what things were like before it. The latest example of this in 
miniature is the technique known as Ajax, which has become so widespread 
that it’s often thought that the technique has been around practically forever. 

In some ways it has. During the first big stretch of browser innovation, 
Netscape added a feature known as LiveScript, which allowed people to 
put small scripts in web pages so that they could continue to do things after 
you’d downloaded them. One early example was the Netscape form system, 
which would tell you if you’d entered an invalid value for a field as soon as 
you entered it, instead of after you tried to submit the form to the server. 

LiveScript became JavaScript and grew more powerful, leading to a technique 
known as Dynamic HTML, which was typically used to make things fly 
around the screen and change around in response to user input. Doing 
anything serious with Dynamic HTML was painful, however, because all 
the major browsers implemented its pieces slightly differently. 

Shortly before web development died out, in early versions of Mozilla, 
Netscape showed a new kind of technique. I don’t think it ever had a name, 
but we could call it Dynamic XML. The most vivid example I remember 
seeing was a mockup of an search result. The webpage looked 
just like a typical search result page, but instead of being 
written in HTML it was a piece of XML data which was then rendered 
for the user by a piece of JavaScript. The cool part was that this meant the 
rendering could be changed on the fly — there were a bunch of buttons that 
would allow you to sort the books in different ways and have them display 
using different schemes. 

Shortly thereafter the bubble burst and web development crashed. Not, 
however, before Microsoft added a little-known function call named 
XMLHttp Request to IE5. Mozilla quickly followed suit and, while nobody 
I know used it, the function stayed there, just waiting to be taken advantage of. 



XMLHttp Request allowed the JavaScript inside web pages to do something 
they could never really do before: get more data . 1 Before, all the data either 
had to be sent with the web page. If you wanted more data or new data, you 
had to grab another web page. The JavaScript inside web pages couldn’t talk 
to the outside world. XMLHttp Request changed that, allowing web pages 
to get more data from the server whenever they pleased. 

Google was apparently the first to realize what a sea change this was. With 
Gmail and Google Maps, they built applications that took advantage of this 
to provide a user interface that was much more like a web application. (The 
startup Oddpost, bought by Yahoo, actually predated this but their software 
was for-pay and so they didn’t receive as much attention.) 

With Gmail, for example, the application is continually asking the server if 
there’s new email. If there is, then it live updates the page, it doesn’t make you 
download a new one. And Google Maps lets you drag a map around and, as 
you do so, automatically downloads the parts of it you want to look at inline, 
without making you wait for a whole new page to download. 

Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path described this new tactic as Ajax 
(Asynchronous Javascript And XML) in an essay and the term immediately 
took off. Everyone began using the technique in their own software and 
JavaScript toolkits sprung up to make doing so even easier. 

And the rest is future history. 

Both systems were relatively ill-supported by browsers in my experience. They 
were, after all, hacks. So while they both seemed extremely cool (KnowNow, in 
particular, had an awesome demo that allowed for a WYSIWYG SubEthaEdit- 
style live collaboration session in a browser), they never really took off. 

Now apparently there is another technique, which I was unaware of, that 
involved changing the URL of an iframe to load new JavaScript. I’m not sure 
why this technique didn’t quite take off. While Google Maps apparently used 
it (and Oddpost probably did as well), I don’t know of any other major users. 

December 22, 2005 



1. As my commenters point out - and as I well knew, but momentarily 
forgotten - this isn't really true. Before XMLHttpRequest, people 
used a trick of not closing the connection to the server. The server 
would keep adding more and more to the page, never saying it had 
finished downloading. Ka-Ping Yee used this technique to make a real- 
time chat system based on an animated GIF. And the ill-fated startup 
KnowNow used a similar technique with JavaScript to allow for live- 
updating pages. 




When you look at something you’re working on, no matter what it is, you 
can’t help but see past the actual thing to the ideas that inspired it, your plans 
for extending it, the emotions you’ve tied to it. But when others look at it, all 
they see is a piece of junk. 

You only get one chance to make a first impression; why have it be “junk”? 
Once that’s associated with your name or project, it’s tough to scrape off. 
Even people who didn’t see it themselves may have heard about it second- 
hand. And once they hear about it, they’re not likely to see for themselves. 
Life’s too short to waste it on junk. 

But when you release late, after everything has been carefully polished, 
you can share something of genuine quality. Apple, for example, sometimes 
releases stupid stuff, but it always looks good. Even when they flub, people 
give them the benefit of the doubt. “Well, it looks great but I don’t really like 
it” is a lot better then “it’s a piece of junk”. 

Still, you can do better. Releasing means showing it to the world. There’s 
nothing wrong with showing it to friends or experts or even random people in 
a coffee shop. The friends will give you the emotional support you would have 
gotten from actual users, without the stress. The experts will point out most 
of the errors the world would have found, without the insults. And random 
people will not only give you most of the complaints the public would, they’ll 
also tell you why the public gave up even before bothering to complain. 

This is why “release early, release often” works in “open source”: you’re 
releasing to a community of insiders. Programmers know what it’s like to 
write programs and they don’t mind using things that are unpolished. They 
can see what you’re going to do next and maybe help you get there. 

The public isn’t like that. Don’t treat them like they are. 

July 5, 2006 




I often think that the world needs to be a lot more organized. Lots of people 
write reviews of television shows, but nobody seems to collect and organize 
them all. Good introductory guides to subjects are essential for learning, yet 
I only stumble upon them by chance. The cumulative knowledge of science is 
one of our most valuable cultural products, yet it can only be found scattered 
across thousands of short articles in hundreds of different journals. 

I suspect the same thoughts occur to many of a similar cast of mind, since 
there’s so much effort put into discouraging them. The arbiters of respectable 
opinion are frequently found to mock such grand projects or point out 
deficiencies in them. And a friend of mine explained to me that soon out of 
school he nearly killed himself by trying to embark on such a grand project 
and now tries to prevent his friends from making the same mistake. 

One can, of course, make the reverse argument: since there is so much 
need for such organization projects, they must be pretty impossible. But 
upon closer inspection, that isn’t true. Is there a project more grand than an 
encyclopedia or a dictionary? Who dares to compress all human knowledge 
or an entire language into a single book? And yet, there’s not just one but 
several brands of each! 

It seems that when the audience is large enough (and just about everyone 
has use for encyclopedias and dictionaries), it is possible to take on grand 
projects. This suggests that the hold-up is not practical, but economic. The 
funding simply isn’t there to do the same for other things. 

But all this is only true for the era of the book, where such a project means 
gathering together a group of experts and having them work full-time to build 
a Reference Work which can be published and sold expensively to libraries. I 
tend to avoid net triumphalism, but the Internet, it would seem, changes that. 
Wikipedia was created not by dedicated experts but by random strangers and 
while we can complain about its deficiencies, all admit that it’s a useful service. 



The Internet is the first medium to make such projects of mass collaboration 
possible. Certainly numerous people send quotes to Oxford for compilation 
in the Oxford English Dictionary, but a full-time staff is necessary sort and 
edit these notes to build the actual book (not to mention all the other work 
that must be done). On the Internet, however, the entire job — collection, 
summarization, organization, and editing — can be done in spare time by 
mutual strangers. 

An even more striking, but less remarked-upon, example is Napster. Within 
only months, almost as a by-product, the world created the most complete 
library of music and music catalog data ever seen. The contributors to this 
project didn’t even realize they were doing this! They all thought they were 
simply grabbing music for their own personal use. Yet the outcome far 
surpassed anything consciously attempted. 

The Internet fundamentally changes the practicalities of large organization 
projects. Things that previously seemed silly and impossible, like building a 
detailed guide to every television show are now being done as a matter of 
course. It seems like we’re in for an explosion of such modern reference works, 
perhaps with new experiments into tools for making them. 

July 18, 2006 





I’m not the first to suggest that the Internet could be used for bringing 
users together to build grand databases (see article on previous page). The 
most famous example is the Semantic Web project (where, in full disclosure, 
I worked for several years). The project, spearheaded by Tim Berners-Lee, 
inventor of the Web, proposed to extend the working model of the Web to 
more structured data, so that instead of simply publishing text web pages, 
users could publish their own databases, which could be aggregated by search 
engines like Google into major resources. 

The Semantic Web project has received an enormous amount of criticism, 
much (in my view) rooted in misunderstandings, but much legitimate as well. 
In the news today is just the most recent example, in which famed computer 
scientist turned Google executive Peter Norvig challenged Tim Berners-Lee 1 
on the subject at a conference. 

The confrontation symbolizes the (at least imagined) standard debate 
on the subject, which Mark Pilgrim termed million dollar markup versus 
million dollar code 2 . Berners-Lee’s W3C, the supposed proponent of million 
dollar markup, argues that users should publish documents that state in 
special languages that computers can process exactly what they want to say. 
Meanwhile Google, the supposed proponent of million dollar code, thinks 
this is an impractical fantasy, and that the only way forward is to write more 
advanced software to try to extract the meaning from the messes that users 
will inevitably create. 3 

But yesterday I suggested what might be thought of as a third way out; 
one Pilgrim might call million dollar users. Both the code and the markup 
positions make the assumption that users will be publishing their own work 
on their own websites and thus we’ll need some way of reconciling it. But 
Wikipedia points to a different model, where all the users come to one 
website, where the interface for inputting data in the proper format is clear 
and unambiguous, and the users can work together to resolve any conflicts 
that may come up. 



Indeed, this method strikes me as so superior that I’m surprised I don’t see 
it discussed in this context more often. Ignorance doesn’t seem plausible; 
even if Wikipedia was a late-comer, sites like ChefMoz 4 and MusicBrainz 5 
followed this model and were Semantic Web case studies. (Full disclosure: I 
worked on the Semantic Web portions of MusicBrainz.) Perhaps the reason 
is simply that both sides — W3C and Google — have the existing Web as 
the foundation for their work, so it’s not surprising that they assume future 
work will follow from the same basic model. 

One possible criticism of the million dollar users proposal is that it’s 
somehow less free than the individualist approach. One site will end up 
being in charge of all the data and thus will be able to control its formation. 
This is perhaps not ideal, certainly, but if the data is made available under 
a free license it’s no worse than things are now with free software. Those 
angry with the policies can always exercise their right to “fork” the project 
if they don’t like the direction things are going. Not ideal, certainly, but we 
can try to dampen such problems by making sure the central sites are run as 
democratically as possible. 

Another argument is that innovation will be hampered: under the 
individualist model, any person can start doing a new thing with their data, 
and hope that others will pick up the technique. In the centralized model, 
users are limited by the functionality of the centralized site. This too can be 
ameliorated by making the centralized site as open to innovation as possible, 
but even if it’s closed, other people can still do new things by downloading 
the data and building additional services on top of it (as indeed many have 
done with Wikipedia 6 ). 

It’s been eight years since Tim Berners-Lee published his Semantic Web 
Roadmap 7 and it’s difficult to deny that things aren’t exactly going as planned. 
Actual adoption of Semantic Web technologies has been negligible and 
nothing that promises to change that appears on the horizon. Meanwhile, the 
million dollar code people have not fared much better. Google has been able 
to launch a handful of very targeted features, like music search and answers 
to very specific kinds of questions but these are mere conveniences, far from 
changing the way we use the Web. 

By contrast, Wikipedia has seen explosive growth, has become 



the premier site for product information, and when people these days talk 
about user-generated content, they don’t even consider the individualized sense 
that the W3C and Google assume. Perhaps it’s time to try the third way out. 

July 19, 2006 

1 . http : / / news . Google+exec+challenges+Berners- 

2 . 

3. I say supposed because although this is typically how the debate is 
seen, I don't think either the W3C or Google actually hold the strict 
positions on the subject typically ascribed to them. Nonetheless, the 
question is real and it's convenient to consider the strongest forms 
of the positions. 



6 . http://en.wikipedia. 0 rg/wiki/Wikipedia:T 00 ls 

7 . http: / /www.w3 .org/Designlssues/Semantic.html 




I’ve been analyzing the content of blogs lately, looking for patterns. It’s 
a huge amount of data, which makes for some tricky technical problems. 
Finally, tonight, thanks to some help from friends and the Large Graph 
Layout package, I’ve finally got some results. And they’re stunning. Ladies 
and gentlemen, the blogosphere: 

s f, 

* i " 

' ■ 

k i \ *,w 

-5 if «£**•*> 

T *■ Lit 

a VT. L - 

graph of blogspace 

And, for fun, let’s zoom in one of those small splotches: 



pliybnh inn 

(MIMidMIl [HltdlblllT 
pfocmi lUKMI-'jllj 

light iu.hi 

L nni i*_ □ n ram.irkH 


runr Tq .rqq 

■ im ^h ptvi<lne»»f hitched* 

. h*^ki#rii IranxjBtign 
J shn 


HrEOVHlIil'l' rjnmr.j 

graph of the hitchens node 

July 26, 2006 





A couple weeks ago I had the great privilege of attending Wikimania, the 
international Wikimedia conference. Hundreds from all over the world 
gathered there to discuss the magic that is Wikipedia, thinking hard about 
what it means and why it works. It was an amazing intellectual and emotional 

The main attraction was seeing the vibrant Wikipedia community. There 
were the hardcore Wikipedians, who spend their days reviewing changes 
and fixing pages. And there were the elder statesmen, like Larry Lessig and 
Brewster Kahle, who came to meet the first group and tell them how their 
work fits into a bigger picture. Spending time with all these people was 
amazing fun — they’re all incredibly bright, enthusiastic and, most shockingly, 
completely dedicated to a cause greater than themselves. 

At most “technology” conferences I’ve been to, the participants generally 
talk about technology for its own sake. If use ever gets discussed, it’s only 
about using it to make vast sums of money. But at Wikimania, the primary 
concern was doing the most good for the world, with technology as the tool 
to help us get there. It was an incredible gust of fresh air, one that knocked 
me off my feet. 

There was another group attending, however: the people holding up the 
platform on which this whole community stands. I spent the first few days 
with the mostly-volunteer crew of hackers who keep the websites up and 
running. In later days, I talked to the site administrators who exercise the 
power that the software gives them. And I heard much about the Wikimedia 
Foundation, the not-for-profit that controls and runs the sites. 

Much to my surprise, this second group was almost the opposite of the 
first. With a few notable exceptions, when they were off-stage they talked 
gossip and details: how do we make the code stop doing this, how do we get 
people to stop complaining about that, how can we get this other group to 
like us more. Larger goals or grander visions didn’t come up in their private 



conversations; instead they seemed absorbed by the issues of the present. 

Of course, they have plenty to be absorbed by. Since January, Wikipedia’s 
traffic has more than doubled and this group is beginning to strain under 
the load. At the technical level, the software development and server systems 
are both managed by just one person, Brion Vibber, who appears to have his 
hands more-than-full just keeping everything running. The entire system has 
been cobbled together as the site has grown, a messy mix of different kinds of 
computers and code, and keeping it all running sounds like a daily nightmare. 
As a result, actual software development goes rather slowly, which cannot 
help but affect the development of the larger project. 

The small coterie of site administrators, meanwhile, are busy dealing with the 
ever-increasing stream of complaints from the public. The recent Seigenthaler 
affair, in which the founding editor of USA Today noisily attacked Wikipedia 
for containing an grievous error in its article on him, has made people very 
cautious about how Wikipedia treats living people. (Although to judge just 
from the traffic numbers, one might think more such affairs might be a 
good idea. . .) One administrator told me how he spends his time scrubbing 
Wikipedia clean of unflattering facts about people who call the head office 
to complain. 

Finally, the Wikimedia Foundation Board seems to have devolved into 
inaction and infighting. Just four people have been actually hired by the 
Foundation, and even they seem unsure of their role in a largely-volunteer 
community. Little about this group — which, quite literally, controls 
Wikipedia — is known by the public. Even when they were talking to 
dedicated Wikipedians at the conference, they put a public face on things, 
saying little more than “don’t you folks worry, we’ll straighten everything out”. 

The plain fact is that Wikipedia’s gotten too big to be run by just a couple 
of people. One way or another, it’s going to have to become an organization; 
the question is what kind. Organizational structures are far from neutral: 
whose input gets included decides what actions get taken, the positions that 
get filled decide what things get focused on, the vision at the top sets the 
path that will be followed. 

I worry that Wikipedia, as we know it, might not last. That its feisty 



democracy might ossify into staid bureaucracy, that its innovation might 
stagnate into conservatism, that its growth might slow to stasis. Were such 
things to happen, I know I could not just stand by and watch the tragedy. 
Wikipedia is just too important — both as a resource and as a model — to 
see fail. 

That is why, after much consideration, I’ve decided to run for a seat on the 
Wikimedia Foundation’s Board. I’ve been a fairly dedicated Wikipedian since 
2003, adding and editing pages whenever I came across them. I’ve gone to a 
handful of Wikipedia meetups and even got my photo on the front page of 
the Boston Globe as an example Wikipedian. But I’ve never gotten particularly 
involved in Wikipedia politics — I’m not an administrator, I don’t get involved 
in policy debates, I hardly even argue on the “talk pages”. Mostly, I just edit. 

And, to be honest, I wish I could stay that way. When people at Wikimania 
suggested I run for a Board seat, I shrugged off the idea. But since then, I’ve 
become increasingly convinced that I should run, if only to bring attention 
to these issues. Nobody else seems to be seriously discussing this challenge. 

The election begins today and lasts three weeks. As it rolls on, I plan to 
regularly publish essays like this one, examining the questions that face 
Wikipedia in depth. Whether I win or not, I hope we can use this opportunity 
for a grand discussion about where we should be heading and what we can 
do to get there. That said, if you’re an eligible Wikipedian, I hope that you’ll 
please vote for me. 

August 31, 2006 




I first met Jimbo Wales, the face of Wikipedia, when he came to speak at 
Stanford. Wales told us about Wikipedia’s history, technology, and culture, 
but one thing he said stands out. “The idea that a lot of people have of 
Wikipedia,” he noted, “is that it’s some emergent phenomenon — the wisdom 
of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing — thousands and thousands 
of individual users each adding a little bit of content and out of this emerges 
a coherent body of work.” But, he insisted, the truth was rather different: 
Wikipedia was actually written by “a community ... a dedicated group of a 
few hundred volunteers” where “I know all of them and they all know each 
other”. Really, “it’s much like any traditional organization.” 

The difference, of course, is crucial. Not just for the public, who wants to 
know how a grand thing like Wikipedia actually gets written, but also for 
Wales, who wants to know how to run the site. “For me this is really important, 
because I spend a lot of time listening to those four or five hundred and if . . . 
those people were just a bunch of people talking . . . maybe I can just safely 
ignore them when setting policy” and instead worry about “the million people 
writing a sentence each”. 

So did the Gang of 500 actually write Wikipedia? Wales decided to run a 
simple study to find out: he counted who made the most edits to the site. “I 
expected to find something like an 80-20 rule: 80% of the work being done 
by 20% of the users, just because that seems to come up a lot. But it’s actually 
much, much tighter than that: it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done 
by just 0.7% of the users . . . 524 people. . . . And in fact the most active 2%, 
which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits. ’’The remaining 25% 
of edits, he said, were from “people who [are] contributing ... a minor change 
of a fact or a minor spelling fix ... or something like that.” 

Stanford wasn’t the only place he’s made such a claim; it’s part of the standard 
talk he gives all over the world. “This is the group of around a thousand people 
who really matter”, he told us at Stanford. “There is this tight community 
that is actually doing the bulk of all the editing”, he explained at the Oxford 



Internet Institute. “It’s a group of around a thousand to two thousand people,” 
he informed the crowd at GEL 2005. These are just the three talks I watched, 
but Wales has given hundreds more like them. 

At Stanford the students were skeptical. Wales was just counting the number 
of edits — the number of times a user changed something and clicked save. 
Wouldn’t things be different if he counted the amount of text each user 
contributed? Wales said he planned to do that in “the next revision”, but was 
sure “my results are going to be even stronger”, because he’d no longer be 
counting vandalism and other changes that later got removed. 

Wales presents these claims as comforting. Don’t worry, he tells the world, 
Wikipedia isn’t as shocking as you think. In fact, it’s just like any other project: 
a small group of colleagues working together toward a common goal. But if 
you think about it, Wales’s view of things is actually much more shocking: 
around a thousand people wrote the world’s largest encyclopedia in four years 
for free? Could this really be true? 

Curious and skeptical, I decided to investigate. I picked an article at random 
(“Alan Alda”) to see how it was written. Today the Alan Alda page is a pretty 
standard Wikipedia page: it has a couple photos, several pages of facts and 
background, and a handful of links. But when it was first created, it was just 
two sentences: “Alan Alda is a male actor most famous for his role of Hawkeye 
Pierce in the television series MASH. Or recent work, he plays sensitive male 
characters in drama movies.” How did it get from there to here? 

Edit by edit, I watched the page evolve. The changes I saw largely fell into 
three groups. A tiny handful — probably around 5 out of nearly 400 — were 
“vandalism”: confused or malicious people adding things that simply didn’t 
fit, followed by someone undoing their change. The vast majority, by far, were 
small changes: people fixing typos, formatting, links, categories, and so on, 
making the article a little nicer but not adding much in the way of substance. 
Finally, a much smaller amount were genuine additions: a couple sentences 
or even paragraphs of new information added to the page. 

Wales seems to think that the vast majority of users are just doing the 
first two (vandalizing or contributing small fixes) while the core group of 
Wikipedians writes the actual bulk of the article. But that’s not at all what I 



found. Almost every time I saw a substantive edit, I found the user who had 
contributed it was not an active user of the site. They generally had made 
less than 50 edits (typically around 10), usually on related pages. Most never 
even bothered to create an account. 

To investigate more formally, I purchased some time on a computer cluster 
and downloaded a copy of the Wikipedia archives. I wrote a little program 
to go through each edit and count how much of it remained in the latest 
version. Instead of counting edits, as Wales did, I counted the number of 
letters a user actually contributed to the present article. 

If you just count edits, it appears the biggest contributors to the Alan 
Alda article (7 of the top 10) are registered users who (all but 2) have made 
thousands of edits to the site. Indeed, #4 has made over 7,000 edits while #7 
has over 25,000. In other words, if you use Wales’s methods, you get Wales’s 
results: most of the content seems to be written by heavy editors. 

But when you count letters, the picture dramatically changes: few of the 
contributors (2 out of the top 10) are even registered and most (6 out of the 
top 10) have made less than 25 edits to the entire site. In fact, #9 has made 
exactly one edit — this one! With the more reasonable metric — indeed, 
the one Wales himself said he planned to use in the next revision of his 
study — the result completely reverses. 

I don’t have the resources to run this calculation across all ofWikipedia (there 
are over 60 million edits!), but I ran it on several more randomly-selected 
articles and the results were much the same. For example, the largest portion 
of the Anaconda article was written by a user who only made 2 edits to it 
(and only 100 on the entire site). By contrast, the largest number of edits were 
made by a user who appears to have contributed no text to the final article 
(the edits were all deleting things and moving things around). 

When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one 
edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking 
and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing 
things like changing the name of a category across the entire site — the kind of 
thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast 
majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content. 



And when you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Writing an 
encyclopedia is hard. To do anywhere near a decent job, you have to know 
a great deal of information about an incredibly wide variety of subjects. 
Writing so much text is difficult, but doing all the background research 
seems impossible. 

On the other hand, everyone has a bunch of obscure things that, for one 
reason or another, they’ve come to know well. So they share them, clicking 
the edit link and adding a paragraph or two to Wikipedia. At the same time, 
a small number of people have become particularly involved in Wikipedia 
itself, learning its policies and special syntax, and spending their time tweaking 
the contributions of everybody else. 

Other encyclopedias work similarly, just on a much smaller scale: a large group 
of people write articles on topics they know well, while a small staff formats 
them into a single work. This second group is clearly very important — it’s 
thanks to them encyclopedias have a consistent look and tone — but it’s a 
severe exaggeration to say that they wrote the encyclopedia. One imagines 
the people running Britannica worry more about their contributors than 
their formatters. 

And Wikipedia should too. Even if all the formatters quit the project 
tomorrow, Wikipedia would still be immensely valuable. For the most part, 
people read Wikipedia because it has the information they need, not because 
it has a consistent look. It certainly wouldn’t be as nice without one, but the 
people who (like me) care about such things would probably step up to take 
the place of those who had left. The formatters aid the contributors, not the 
other way around. 

Wales is right about one thing, though. This fact does have enormous policy 
implications. If Wikipedia is written by occasional contributors, then growing 
it requires making it easier and more rewarding to contribute occasionally. 
Instead of trying to squeeze more work out of those who spend their life on 
Wikipedia, we need to broaden the base of those who contribute just a little bit. 

Unfortunately, precisely because such people are only occasional contributors, 
their opinions aren’t heard by the current Wikipedia process. They don’t get 
involved in policy debates, they don’t go to meetups, and they don’t hang out 



with Jimbo Wales. And so things that might help them get pushed on the 
backburner, assuming they’re even proposed. 

Out of sight is out of mind, so it’s a short hop to thinking these invisible 
people aren’t particularly important. Thus Wales’s belief that 500 people wrote 
half an encyclopedia. Thus his assumption that outsiders contribute mostly 
vandalism and nonsense. And thus the comments you sometimes hear that 
making it hard to edit the site might be a good thing. 

“I’m not a wiki person who happened to go into encyclopedias,” Wales told 
the crowd at Oxford. “I’m an encyclopedia person who happened to use a 
wiki.” So perhaps his belief that Wikipedia was written in the traditional 
way isn’t surprising. Unfortunately, it is dangerous. If Wikipedia continues 
down this path of focusing on the encyclopedia at the expense of the wiki, 
it might end up not being much of either. 

September 4, 2006 




First, on a personal note, let me simply say thanks. I probably put more 
work yesterday’s post than anything else I’ve ever written. In addition to the 
research I describe, I’ve spent my free time the past few weeks going over 
the text of the article again and again, agonizing about the proper phrasing, 
getting everything just right. It was definitely worth it. My sincere thanks to 
everyone who made it possible. 


Getting down to business, many are interested in pursuing this line of 
quantitative research. The work I did was intended for an article, not a formal 
paper, and while I’m fairly confident the basic principles are correct there’s 
plenty more work to be done. 

I was heartened to discover research by Seth Anthony which, independently 
and more formally, came to largely the same conclusions. As he explained on 
Reddit 1 : “Only about 10% of all edits on Wikipedia actually add substantive 
content. Roughly a third of those edits are made by someone without an 
account, half of someone without a userpage (a minimal threshhold for 
considering whether someone is part of the “community”). The average 
content-adder has less than 200 edits: much less, in many cases.” 

One of the more interesting things Anthony did was look at the work 
of admins in detail. In his sample, he noticed that none of the genuinely 
substantive edits were done by official site admins. He found that when 
admins originally joined the site, they contributed a lot less frequently and 
consistently but created a lot more substantive content. After they became 
admins, however, they turned into what Anthony calls “janitors”. 

One of the wonderful things about Wikipedia is that literally all of the 
data — every single edit and practically every discussion made on or about 
the site — is easily available. So there’s an enormous amount more to learn 
about how it gets written. (In addition to nailing down what we know so far 



a little better.) If you’re interested to contributing to further research on this 
and related topics, send me an email and I’ll try to coordinate something. 


Another response was to think about the implications on who gets to 
vote in Wikipedia elections. ‘I tried to vote,’ commented Eric *, ‘but since 
I am one of your “occasional contributors” (I’ve edited only one article to 
make content changes), I am not eligible[]. It appears that the opinions 
of “occasional contributors” will not be heard.’ Others, including William 
Loughborough and Jason Clark, expressed similar sentiments. ‘HURRAH, 
I am DISENFRANCHISED’, complained Bill Coderre *. 


But by far the most common response was people sharing their experience 
trying to contribute to Wikipedia, only to see their contributions be quickly 
reverted or rewritten. 

‘You can definately tell the “regulars” on Wikipedia’, joshd * noted. ‘They’re 
the ones who ... delete your newly reate[d] article without hesitation, or 
revert your changes and accuse you of vandalis[m] without even checking 
the changes you made.’ ‘Every modification I made was deleted without any 
comment’, complained CafeCafe *. ‘I know there are a lot of people like me 
willing to help, but unless there is a real discussion behind, I won’t waste my 
time to help anymore which is a sad thing.’ 

Bowerbird * complained that ‘my contributions . . . have been warped by people 
who merely want to “make it sound like an encyclopedia” without having any 
knowledge of the topic’ while Ian ' ‘got fed up of the self-appointed officious 
jobsworths who [rewrite your] things [to] fit “their vision” .... My time is 
too valuable to argue with these people. . . ’ 

Bill Coderre * told of how he wrote entire articles from scratch, only to see 
them ruined ‘by some super- editors, who removed content, and turned what 
I thought was gosh-darn good writing into crap. ... These people, by and 
large, “edited” thousands of articles. In most cases, these edits were to remove 
material that they found unsuitable. Indeed, some of the people-history pages 



contained little “awards” that people gave each other — for removing content 
from Wikipedia.’ 

And it seems like half of all the people I meet have a story about being 
listed for deletion and the nasty insults that ensued. Seriously, there have been 
numerous times I’ve said something about Wikipedia to a relatively well- 
known person and they responded back with a story about how someone 
insulted and deleted them. ‘[Tjhere are culture vultures overlooking Wkidpedia 
waiting to kill anything that doesn’t fit the norm’, wrote Mediangler . 

Why does this matter? Why should we listen to the angry complaints of 
random people on the Internet? If occasional contributors are the lifeblood 
of Wikipedia, as the evidence suggests, then alienating such people just can’t 
be healthy for the project. As Ian wrote, ‘if we are to invest our valuable time 
contributing some expert knowledge on some subject, we want to know that 
our work will remain there for others, and not just keep getting reverted out 
in seconds by some control freak that knows nothing about the actual subject. 
. . . your article proves the exist[e]nce of this “inner gang” that I feel are actually 
holding Wikipedia back. To allow Wikipedia to grow and really pick the 
brains of the experts around the world, you need to do something to break 
up this inner gang and the mini empires they are building for themselves.’ 

Perhaps we can improve things with new rules (not only should you not 
bite 2 the newcomers, you shouldn’t even bark at them) and new software 
(making it easier to discuss changes and defend contributions), but most 
importantly, it’s going to require a cultural shift. Larry Sanger famously 
suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could 
feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: 
Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as 
genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out. 

September 5, 2006 

References & Notes: 

1 . http : / / reddit . com/ info/ g9si/comments/cgc62 

2 . http : / /e n . wikipedia . org/wiki/WP : BITE 
* username 




So far my Wikipedia script has churned through about 200 articles, 
calculating who wrote what in each. This morning I looked through them 
to see if there were any that didn’t match my theory. It printed out a couple 
and I decided to investigate. 

The first it found was Alkane 1 , a long technical article about acyclic saturated 
hydrocarbons that it said was largely written by Physchim62 2 . Yesterday a 
good friend was telling me that he thought long technical articles were likely 
written by a single person, so I immediately thought that here was the proof 
that he was right. But, just to check, I decided to look in the edit history to 
make sure my script hadn’t made an error. 

It hadn’t, I found, but once again simply looking at the numbers missed 
the larger point. Physchim62 had indeed contributed most of the article, but 
according to the edit comments, it was by translating the German version! 
I don’t have the German data, but presumably it was written in the same 
incremental way as most of the articles in my study. 

The next serious case was Characters in Atlas Shrugged 3 , which the script 
said was written by CatherineMunro. Again, it seemed plausible that one 
person could have written all those character bios. But again, an investigation 
into the actual edit history found that Munro hadn’t written them, instead 
she’d copied them from a bunch of subpages, merging them into one bigger 

The final serious example was Anchorage, Alaska 4 , which appeared to have 
been written by JeffreyAllenl975 s . Here the contributions seemed quite 
genuine; JeffreyAllenl975 made tons of edits each contributing a paragraph at 
a time. The work seemed to take quite a toll on him; at his user page he noted 
“I just got burned-out and tired of the online encyclopedia. My time is being 
taken away from me by being with Wikipedia.” He lasted about four months. 

Still, something seemed fishy about JeffreyAllenl975, so I decided to 



investigate further. Currently, the Anchorage page has a tag noting that 
“The current version of the article or section reads like an advertisement.” 
A bit of Googling revealed why: JeffreyAllenl975’s contributions had been 
copied-and-pasted from other websites, like the Anchorage Chamber of 
Commerce 6 (“Anchorage’s public school system is ranked among the best in 
the nation. ... The district’s average SAT and ACT College entrance exam 
scores are consistently above the national average and Advanced Placement 
courses are offered at each of the district’s larger high schools.”). 

I suspect JeffreyAllenl975 didn’t know what he was doing; his writing style 
suggests he’s just a kid: “In my free time, I am very proud of my-self by how 
much I’ve learned by making good edits on Wikipedia articles.” I’m pretty 
sure he just thought he was helping the project: “Wikipedia is like the real 
encyclopedia books (A thru Z) that you see in the library, but better.” But 
his plagiarism will still have to be removed. 

When I started, just looking at the numbers these seemed to be several 
cases that strongly contradicted my theory. And had I just stuck to looking 
at the numbers, I would have believed that to be the case as well. But, once 
again, investigation shows the picture to be far more interesting: translation, 
reorganization, and plagiarism. Exciting stuff! 

September 5, 2006 

1 . 

2 . http://en.wikipedia.Org/wiki/User:Physchim62 

3 . http: / /en. 

4 . 

5 . http://en.wikipedia.Org/wiki/User:JeffreyAllenl975 

6 . http : / /www . anchoragechamber . org/inf 0 / relocation . htm 




During Wikimania, I gave a short talk proposing some new features for 
Wikipedia. The audience, which consisted mostly of programmers and other 
high-level Wikipedians, immediately begun suggesting problems with the 
idea. “Won’t bad thing X happen?” “How will you prevent Y?” “Do you really 
think people are going to do Z?” For a while I tried to answer them, explaining 
technical ways to fix the problem, but after a couple rounds I finally said: 


If I had come here five years ago and told you I was going to make an 
entire encyclopedia by putting up a bunch of web pages that anyone 
could edit, you would have been able to raise a thousand objections: It 
will get filled with vandalism! The content will be unreliable! No one will 
do that work for free! 

And you would have been right to. These were completely reasonable 
expectations at the time. But here’s the funny thing: it worked anyway. 

At the time, I was just happy this quieted them down. But later I started 
thinking more about it. Why did Wikipedia work anyway? 

It wasn’t because its programmers were so far-sighted that the software 
solved all the problems. And it wasn’t because the people running it put clear 
rules in place to prevent misbehavior. We know this because when Wikipedia 
started it didn’t have any programmers (it used off-the-shelf wiki software) 
and it didn’t have clear rules (one of the first major rules was apparently 
Ignore all rules 1 ). 

No, the reason Wikipedia works is because of the community, a group of 
people that took the project as their own and threw themselves into making 
it succeed. 

People are constantly trying to vandalize Wikipedia, replacing articles with 



random text. It doesn’t work; their edits are undone within minutes, even 
seconds. But why? It’s not magic — it’s a bunch of incredibly dedicated 
people who sit at their computers watching every change that gets made. 
These days they call themselves the “recent changes patrol” and have special 
software that makes it easy to undo bad changes and block malicious users 
with a couple clicks. 

Why does anyone do such a thing? It’s not particularly fascinating work, 
they’re not being paid to do it, and nobody in charge asked them to volunteer. 
They do it because they care about the site enough to feel responsible. They 
get upset when someone tries to mess it up. 

It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling this way about Britannica. There are 
people who love that encyclopedia, but have any of them shown up at their 
offices offering to help out? It’s hard even to imagine. Average people just 
don’t feel responsible for Britannica; there are professionals to do that. 

Everybody knows Wikipedia as the site anyone can edit. The article about 
tree frogs wasn’t written because someone in charge decided they needed one 
and assigned it to someone; it was written because someone, somewhere just 
went ahead and started writing it. And a chorus of others decided to help out. 

But what’s less well-known is that it’s also the site that anyone can run. 
The vandals aren’t stopped because someone is in charge of stopping them; 
it was simply something people started doing. And it’s not just vandalism: a 
“welcoming committee” says hi to every new user, a “cleanup taskforce” goes 
around doing factchecking. The site’s rules are made by rough consensus. Even 
the servers are largely run this way — a group of volunteer sysadmins hang 
out on IRC, keeping an eye on things. Until quite recently, the Foundation 
that supposedly runs Wikipedia had no actual employees. 

This is so unusual, we don’t even have a word for it. It’s tempting to say 
“democracy”, but that’s woefully inadequate. Wikipedia doesn’t hold a vote 
and elect someone to be in charge of vandal-fighting. Indeed, “Wikipedia” 
doesn’t do anything at all. Someone simply sees that there are vandals to be 
fought and steps up to do the job. 

This is so radically different that it’s tempting to see it as a mistake: Sure, 



perhaps things have worked so far on this model, but when the real problems 
hit, things are going to have to change: certain people must have clear authority, 
important tasks must be carefully assigned, everyone else must understand 
that they are simply volunteers. 

But Wikipedia’s openness isn’t a mistake; it’s the source of its success. A 
dedicated community solves problems that official leaders wouldn’t even know 
were there. Meanwhile, their volunteerism largely eliminates infighting about 
who gets to be what. Instead, tasks get done by the people who genuinely 
want to do them, who just happen to be the people who care enough to do 
them right. 

Wikipedia’s biggest problems have come when it’s strayed from this path, 
when it’s given some people official titles and specified tasks. Whenever that 
happens, real work slows down and squabbling speeds up. But it’s an easy 
mistake to make, so it gets made again and again. 

Of course, that’s not the only reason this mistake is made, it’s just the most 
polite. The more frightening problem is that people love to get power and hate 
to give it up. Especially with a project as big and important as Wikipedia, with 
the constant swarm of praise and attention, it takes tremendous strength to 
turn down the opportunity to be its official X, to say instead “it’s a community 
project, I’m just another community member”. 

Indeed, the opposite is far more common. People who have poured vast 
amounts of time into the project begin to feel they should be getting something 
in return. They insist that, with all their work, they deserve an official job or 
a special title. After all, won’t clearly assigning tasks be better for everyone? 

And so, the trend is clear: more power, more people, more problems. It’s not 
just a series of mistakes, it’s the tendency of the system. 

It would be absurd for me to say that I’m immune to such pressures. After 
all, I’m currently running for a seat on the Wikimedia Board. But I also lie 
awake at night worrying that I might abuse my power. 

A systemic tendency like this is not going to be solved by electing the right 
person to the right place and then going to back to sleep while they solve 



the problem. If the community wants to remain in charge, it’s going to have 
to fight for it. I’m writing these essays to help people understand that this 
is something worth fighting for. And if I’m elected to the Board, I plan to 
keep on writing. 

Just as Wikipedia’s success as an encyclopedia requires a world of volunteers 
to write it, Wikipedia’s success as an organization requires the community 
of volunteers to run it. On the one hand, this means opening up the Board’s 
inner workings for the community to see and get involved in. But it also 
means opening up the actions of the community so the wider world can get 
involved. Whoever wins this next election, I hope we all take on this task. 

September 7, 2006 

1 . 




Wikipedia, the Vice President of the World Book told us, is now recognized by 
ten percent of Americans. He presented this in a tone of congratulation: with 
no marketing budget or formal organization, a free online-only encyclopedia 
written by volunteers had achieved a vast amount of attention. But I took it 
a different way. “Only ten percent?” I thought. “That means we have ninety 
percent to go!” 

Wikipedia is one of the few things that pretty much everyone finds useful. 
So how do we get all of them to use it? The first task, it appears, is telling 
them it exists. An ad campaign or PR blitz doesn’t quite seem appropriate 
for the job, though. Instead, our promotion should work the same way way 
the rest of Wikipedia works: let the community do it. 

Wikipedia’s users come from all over society: different cultures, different 
countries, different places, different fields of study. The physics grad students 
who contribute heavily to physics articles are in a much better position to 
promote it to physicists than a promotional flack from the head office. The 
Pokemon fan maintaining the Pokemon articles probably knows how to reach 
other Pokemaniacs than any marketing expert. 

Sure, you might say, but isn’t the whole question of marketing Wikipedia 
somewhat silly? After all, you obviously know about Wikipedia, and your 
friends probably all seem to as well. But things are a lot thinner than you 
might expect: as noted above, only one in ten Americans even knows what 
Wikipedia is, and most of those don’t truly understand it. 

It’s shocking to discover how even smart, technically-minded people can’t 
figure out how to actually edit Wikipedia. Dave Winer wrote some of the first 
software to have an “Edit This Page” button (indeed, he operated editthispage. 
com for many years) and yet he at first complained that he couldn’t figure 
out how to edit a page on Wikipedia. Michael Arrington reviews advanced 
Web 2.0 websites daily, yet he noted 1 that “Many people don’t realize how 
easy it is for anyone to add content to wikipedia (I’ve done it several times)”. 



If prominent technologists have trouble, imagine the rest of the world. 

Obviously, this has implications for the software side: we need to work 
hard on making Wikipedia’s interface clearer and more usable. But there’s 
also a task here for the community: giving talks and tutorials to groups that 
you know about, explaining the core ideas behind Wikipedia, and giving 
demonstrations of how to get involved in it. The best interface in the world 
is no substitute for real instruction and even the clearest document explaining 
our principles will be ignored in a way that a personal presentation won’t. 

But beyond simply giving people the ability to contribute, we need to work 
to make contributing more rewarding. As I previously noted, many people 
decide to dive into writing for Wikipedia, only to watch their contributions 
be summarily reverted. Many people create a new article, only to see it get 
deleted after an AfD discussion where random Wikipedians try to think up 
negative things to say about it. For someone who thought they were donating 
their time to help the project, neither response is particularly encouraging. 

I’m not saying that we should change our policies or automatically keep 
everything a newcomer decides to add so we don’t hurt their feelings. But we 
do need to think more about how to enforce policies without turning valuable 
newcomers away, how we can educate them instead of alienating them. 

At Wikimania, no less an authority than Richard Stallman (who himself 
long ago suggested the idea 2 of a free online encyclopedia) wandered around 
the conference complaining about a problem he’d discovered with a particular 
Wikipedia article. He could try to fix it himself, he noted, but it would take an 
enormous amount of his time and the word would probably just get reverted. 
He’s not the only one — I constantly hear tales from experts about problems 
they encounter on Wikipedia, but are too complicated for them to fix alone. 
What if we could collect these complaints on the site, instead of having these 
people make them at parties? 

One way to do that would be to have some sort of complaint-tracking 
system for articles, like the discussion system of talk pages. Instead of simply 
complaining about an article in public, Stallman could follow a link from 
it to file a complaint. The complaint would be tracked and stored with the 
article. More dedicated Wikipedians would go through the list of complaints, 



trying to address them and letting the submitter know when they were done. 
Things like POV allegations could be handled in a similar way: a notice 
saying neutrality was disputed could appear on the top of the page until the 
complaint was properly closed. 

This is just one idea, of course, but it’s an example of the kinds of things we 
need to think about. Wikipedia is visited by millions each day; how do get 
them to contribute back their thoughts on the article instead of muttering 
them under their breath or airing them to their friends? 

September n, 2006 

1 . http: / /www.techcrunch. com/2005/07/ 12/profile-wikipedia/ 

2 . http : / /www . gnu . org/ encyclopedia/ 




Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like everywhere you look people are trying to 
get a piece of Wikipedia. Wikis sites have been started in every field from the 
Muppets 1 to the law 3 . The domain recently was sold for 3 million 
dollars 3 . Professor Cass Sunstein, previously seen 4 arguing the Internet could 
tear apart the republic, just published a new book arguing tools like wikis 
will lead us to “Infotopia”. So is it possible to replicate Wikipedia’s success? 
What’s the key that made it work? 

Unfortunately, this question hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. For the 
most part, people have simply assumed that Wikipedia is as simple as the name 
suggests: install some wiki software, say that it’s for writing an encyclopedia, 
and voila ! — problem solved. But as pretty much everyone who has tried has 
discovered, it isn’t as simple as that. 

Technology industry people tend to reduce web sites down to their 
technology: Wikipedia is simply an instance of wiki software, DailyKos 
just blog software, and Reddit just voting software. But these sites aren’t just 
installations of software, there also communities of people. 

Building a community is pretty tough; it requires just the right combination 
of technology and rules and people. And while it’s been clear that communities 
are at the core of many of the most interesting things on the Internet, we’re 
still at the very early stages of understanding what it is that makes them work. 

But Wikipedia isn’t even a typical community. Usually Internet communities 
are groups of people who come together to discuss something, like cryptography 
or the writing of a technical specification. Perhaps they meet in an IRC 
channel, a web forum, a newsgroup, or on a mailing list, but the focus is always 
something “out there”, something outside the discussion itself. 

But with Wikipedia, the goal is building Wikipedia. It’s not a community 
set up to make some other thing, it’s a community set up to make itself. And 
since Wikipedia was one of the first sites to do it, we know hardly anything 



about building communities like that. 

Indeed, we know hardly anything about building software for that. Wiki 
software has been around for years — the first wiki was launched in 1995; 
Wikipedia wasn’t started until 2001 — but it was always used like any other 
community, for discussing something else. It wasn’t generally used for building 
wikis in themselves; indeed, it wasn’t very good at doing that. 

Wikipedia’s real innovation was much more than simply starting a community 
to build an encyclopedia or using wiki software to do it. Wikipedia’s real 
innovation was the idea of radical collaboration. Instead of having a small 
group of people work together, it invited the entire world to take part. Instead 
of assigning tasks, it let anyone work on whatever they wanted, whenever they 
felt like it. Instead of having someone be in charge, it let people sort things out 
for themselves. And yet it did all this towards creating a very specific product. 

Even now, it’s hard to think of anything else quite like it. Books have been 
co-authored, but usually only by two people. Large groups have written 
encyclopedias, but usually only by being assigned tasks. Software has been 
written by communities, but typically someone is in charge. 

But if we take this definition, rather than wiki software, as the core of 
Wikipedia, then we see that other types of software are also forms of radical 
collaboration. Reddit, for example, is radical collaboration to build a news site: 
anyone can add or edit, nobody is in charge, and yet an interesting news site 
results. Freed from the notion that Wikipedia is simply about wiki software, 
one can even imagine new kinds of sites. What about a “debate wiki”, where 
people argue about a question, but the outcome is a carefully-constructed 
discussion for others to read later, rather than a morass of bickering messages. 

If we take radical collaboration as our core, then it becomes clear that 
extending Wikipedia’s success doesn’t simply mean installing more copies 
of wiki software for different tasks. It means figuring out the key principles 
that make radical collaboration work. What kinds of projects is it good for? 
How do you get them started? How do you keep them growing? What rules 
do you put in place? What software do you use? 

These questions can’t be answered from the armchair, of course. They require 



experimentation and study. And that, in turn, requires building a community 
around strong collaboration itself. It doesn’t help us much if each person goes 
off and tries to start a wiki on their own. To learn what works and what doesn’t, 
we need to share our experiences and be willing to test new things — new 
goals, new social structures, new software. 

September 14, 2006 

1 . 

2 . http : / / lii . law . Cornell . edu/wex/ index . php/Main_Page 

3 . http : //www. wired . com/ news/technology/ internet/ 0,71591-0. html?tw=wn 

4 . 




Code is law, Lawrence Lessig famously said years ago, and time has not 
robbed the idea of any of its force. The point, so eloquently defended in his 
book Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, is that in the worlds created by 
software, the design of the software regulates behavior just as strongly as any 
formal law does; more effectively, in fact. 

The point is obvious in some contexts. In the online 3D universe of Second 
Life, if the software prevents you from typing a certain word, that’s a far more 
effective restraint on speech in that world than any US law could ever be in ours. 
But the point is far more subtle than that; it applies with equal force to the world 
ofWikipedia, the thriving community and culture that our wiki software creates. 

For one thing, the software decides who gets to be part of the community. 
If using it is clear and simple, then lots of people can use it. But, if it’s 
complicated, then only those who take the time to learn it are able to take 
part. And, as we’ve seen, lots of intelligent people don’t even understand how 
to edit Wikipedia, let alone do any of the other things on the site. 

For another, the software decides how the community operates. Features like 
administrative controls privilege some users over others. Support for things 
like stable revisions decide what sorts of things get published. The structure 
of talk pages help decide what and how things get discussed. 

The page design the site uses encourages specific actions by making some 
links clear and prominent. Software functions like categories make certain 
kinds of features possible. The formatting codes used for things like infoboxes 
and links determine how easy it is for newcomers to edit those pieces of the 

All of these things are political choices, not technical ones. It’s not like 
there’s a right answer that’s obvious to any intelligent programmer. And these 
choices can have huge effects on the community. That’s why it’s essential the 
community be involved in making these decisions. 



The current team of Wikipedia programmers is a volunteer group (although 
a couple of them were recently hired by the Wikimedia Foundation so they 
could live a little more comfortably) working much like a standard free 
software community, discussing things on mailing lists and IRC channels. 
They got together in person in the days before Wikimania to discuss some 
of the current hot topics in the software. 

One presentation was by a usability expert who told us about a study done on 
how hard people found it to add a photo to a Wikipedia page. The discussion 
after the presentation turned into a debate over whether Wikipedia should 
be easy to to use. Some suggested that confused users should just add their 
contributions in the wrong way and a more experienced users would come 
along to clean their contributions up. Others questioned whether confused 
users should be allowed to edit the site at all — were their contributions 
even valuable? 

As a programmer, I have a great deal of respect for the members of my trade. 
But with all due respect, are these really decisions that the programmers 
should be making? 

Meanwhile, Jimbo Wales also has a for-profit company, Wikia, which recently 
received $4 million in venture capital funding. Wales has said, including in 
his keynote speech at Wikimania, that one of the things he hopes to spend 
it on is hiring programmers to improve the Wikipedia software. 

This is the kind of thing that seems like a thoughtful gesture if you think of 
the software as neutral — after all, improvements are improvements — but 
becomes rather more problematic if technical choices have political effects. 
Should executives and venture capitalists be calling the shots on some of 
these issues? 

The Wikipedia community is enormously vibrant and I have no doubt that 
the site will manage to survive many software changes. But if we’re concerned 
about more than mere survival, about how to make Wikipedia the best that it 
can be, we need to start thinking about software design as much as we think 
about the rest of our policy choices. 

September 18, 2006 




Well, the Wikipedia election has finally ended. The good news is that I can 
now talk about other things again. (For example, did you know that Erik 
Moller eats babies?) I have a backlog of about 20 posts that I built up over 
the course of the election. But instead of springing them on you all at once, 
I’ll try to do daily posting again starting Monday. (Oooh.) 

The actual results haven’t been announced yet (and probably won’t be for 
another couple days, while they check the list of voters for people who voted 
twice) but my impression is that I probably lost. Many wags have commented 
on how my campaign was almost destined to lose: I argued that the hard- 
core Wikipedia contributors weren’t very important, but those were precisely 
the people who could vote for me — in other words, I alienated my only 

“Aaron Swartz: Why is he getting so much attcntion? 1 ”wrotc fellow 
candidate Kelly Martin. “The community has long known that edit count 
is a poor measure of contributions”. Others, meanwhile, insisted my claims 
were so obviously wrong as to not be even worth discussing. 

Jimbo Wales, on the other hand, finally sent me a nice message the other 
day letting me know that he’d removed the offending section from his talk 
and looked forward to sitting down with me and investigating the topic 
more carefully. 

And for my part, I hope to be able to take up some of the offers I’ve received 
for computer time and run my algorithm across all ofWikipedia and publish 
the results in more detailed form. (I’d also like to use the results to put up a 
little website where you can type in the name of a page and see who wrote 
what, color-coded or something like that.) 

As for the election itself, it’s much harder to draw firm conclusions. It’s 
difficult in any election, this one even more so because we have so little 
data — no exit polls or phone surveys or even TV pundits to rely upon. Still, 



I’m fairly content seeing the kind words of all the incredible people I respect. 
Their support means a great deal to me. 

The same is true of the old friends who wrote in during my essays along 
with all the new people who encouraged me to keep on writing. Writing the 
essays on a regular schedule was hard work — at one point, after sleeping 
overnight at my mother’s bedside in the hospital, I trundled down at seven 
in the morning to find an Internet connection so I could write and post 
one — but your support made it worth the effort. 

I hope that whoever wins takes what I’ve written into consideration. I’m 
not sure who that is yet, but there are some hints. I was reading an irreverent 
site critical ofWikipedia when I came across its claim that Jimbo Wales had 
sent an email to the Wikipedia community telling them who they should 
vote for. I assumed the site had simply made it up to attack Jimbo, but when 
I searched I found it really was genuine 2 : 

I personally strongly strongly support the candidacies of Oscar and 


There are other candidates, some good, but at least some of them are 
entirely unacceptable because they have proven themselves repeatedly 
unable to work well with the community. 

For those reading the tea leaves, this suggests that the results will be 
something like: Eloquence, Oscar, Mindspillage. But we’ll see. 

The let-down after the election is probably not the best time to make plans 
but, if I had to, I’d probably decide to stay out ofWikipedia business for a 
while. It’s a great and important project, but not the one for me. 

Anyway, now everyone can go back to vandalizing my Wikipedia page 3 . 


September 22, 2006 



1 . http : / / nonbovine-ruminations . blogspot . com/ 2006/09/ aaron-swart z-why- 
is-he-getting-so-much . html 

2 . http: / /mail. foundation-1/2 006- 
September/ 0 09964 . html 

3 . 




For as long as I’ve been building web apps, it’s been apparent that most 
successful websites are communities — not just interactive pages, but places 
where groups of like-minded people can congregate and do things together. 
Our knowledge of how to make and cultivate communities is still at a very 
early stage, but most agree on their importance. 

A magazine, we may imagine, is like a one-way web site. It doesn’t really 
allow the readers to talk back (with the small exception of the letters page), 
it doesn’t even have any sort of interactivity. But I still think communities are 
the key for magazines; the difference is that magazines export communities. 

In other words, instead of providing a place for a group of like-minded 
people to come together, magazines provide a sampling of what a group of 
like-minded people might say in such an instance so that you can pretend 
you’re part of them. Go down the list and you’ll see. 

The magazines of Conde Nast, for example, export “lifestyles”. Most readers 
probably aren’t the “hip scene” the magazines supposedly cover, but by reading 
these things they learn what to wear and what to buy and what these people 
are talking about. Even their high-brow magazines, like the New Yorker, serve 
the same purpose, only this time it’s books instead of clothes. 

The late, great Lingua Franca exported the university. Academephiles, sitting 
at home, probably taking care of the kids, read it so they could imagine 
themselves part of the life of the mind. Similarly, the new SEED magazine 
is trying to export the culture of science, so people who aren’t themselves 
scientists can get a piece of the lab coat life. 

Alumni magazines similarly export college life, so that graying former college 
students can relive some of their old glory days, reading pieces about library 
renovations as they recall having sex in the stacks. And house organs export 
a particular kind of politics, telling you what a party or organization’s take is 
on the issues of the day, giving you a sense of the party line. 



Run down the list and in pretty much every case you scratch a magazine, 
you find an exported community. Magazines that want to succeed will have 
to find one of their own. 

September 28, 2006 




My company was acquired today. Friends in Cambridge-, we’ll be hanging 
out at Border Cafe tonight. 

• TechCrunch 1 (reddit): “always played second fiddle to Digg” 

• Reddit Blog 2 : “you all have made it everything that it is. A number of 
you even stuck with us after we switched away from Lisp.” 

• 3 : “suggests] that we’re in a serious period of 
inflation, though let’s stop short of calling this a bubble.” 

• Matthew Roche 4 : “the Avis Rent-a-car of the content voting sites.” 

• David Weinberger 5 : ” a very very smart move by CondeNet. . .if they 
let the Reddit folks heavily influence how the service is developed.” 

• Blake Killian 6 : “Conde Nast, the unlikely Disruptor.” 

• Bivings Report 7 : “just sort of scratched at the surface of what might be 
possible if traditional publishers embrace social technologies.” 

• Digg 8 : “Reddit is where you go when you need someone to explain 
to you why North Korea is heaven on earth and America is the devil” 

• Wired News 9 : Users can also append negative votes to stories that are 
of poor quality or that fail to capture their interest.” 

• Mark Pilgrim 10 : “a new form of online scam in which you make all the 
content, and we keep all the money.” 

• Media Wire Daily 11 : “a clear sign that Charles Townsend is making sure 
that Conde’s digital dick is solid enough to swing with the big boys.” 

• Matthew Ingram 12 : “No word so far on whether the rumoured price of 
$65-million has any relationship to reality” 

• Gawker 13 : “merging with the ickle kiddies . . . the Nasties decided they 
needed more of that Reddit magic.” 

• GigaOm 14 : “Reddit received 16 percent of about 300 votes cast, following 
Boing Boing and Gawker.” 

• Valleywag 15 : 1 went to their Boston pad, we played some video games.” 

• Webomatica 16 : “digg gone through a Craigslist filter.” 

• Slashdot 17 : “the great big Web 2.0 bubble continues to inflate towards 
the popping point” 

• The Register 18 : “the price is many heaps smaller than the $150m that 



Kevin Rose reportedly wants for Digg” 

• Joey DeVilla 19 : “I see that Aaron’s been keeping track of what they’ve 
written about the acquisition on his blog.” 

• ReadWriteWeb 20 : “Reddit is another to have been extensively profiled 
by [us]. 

• Press Release 21 : “Reddit achieves our objectives on both counts, and we 
are confident that other companies will find Reddit to be a partner that 
can bring tremendous value to their Web efforts.” 

• Marketing Shifi 2 t: “The obvious question to ask is if Conde Nast will 
allow Reddit ’s rankings to remain neutral and not benefit the company’s 


October 31, 2006 

1 . http: / / 

2 . http : / / reddit . com/blog/trickortreat 

3 . http: / /www. e-consultancy .com/news-blog/362018/reddit-acquired-by- 
conde-nast-to- join-wired-digital . html 

4 . http: / /www. html 

5 . http: / /www. html 

6 . http : / /www . voodooventures . com/ 2006/10/31/ conde-nast-buys-redditcom- 

7 . http: / /www. 

8 . http: / /www. 

9 . http: / /www. wired. com/ news/technology /internet /0 , 72038-0 .html?tw=wn_ 

10 . 

11 . http: / /www.mediawiredaily . com/2006/ 10/creddit-condenast-reportedly- 

12 . http: / / 

13 . http: / /www. 137 1 .php 

14 . http : / / gigaom . com/ 2006/10/3 1 /wired-buys-reddit-extended-version/ 

15 . http: / /www. 
wired-buys-reddit-211400 .php 

16 . http: / / 

1 7 . http : / / s lashdot .org/articles/06/10/31/1910231. shtml 

18 . http: / /www. 

19 . http: / /www.globalnerdy .com/blog/_archives/2006/10/31/2463082 .html 

2 0 . http : / /www . readwriteweb . com/ archives/wired_acquires_reddit . php 

21. http: //biz. yahoo. com/bw/061031/20061031005974 . html?. v=l 

22 . http : / /www . marketingshif t . com/ 2006/1 0 /wired-bookmarks-reddit . cfm 

23 . .html 

24 . http: / /www. . jsp?vnu 
content id= 1003319448 




People are always asking me how I manage to get so much done. For a 
while I tried to impress them with my pearls of wisdom (see article “How 
to be more productive”) but soon I just sort of gave up. I don’t really feel like 
I do anything special — I worry about getting stuff done a lot, but mostly I 
just sort of do it. 

It wasn’t until I started working in an office that the question begun to make 
sense. Since I moved to San Francisco I literally haven’t gotten anything done. 
I haven’t finished a book (I finished three on the plane out here), I haven’t 
answered many emails (I used to answer hundreds a day), I’ve written only 
a couple blog posts (I used to do one a day), and I haven’t written a line of 
code (I used to write whole programs in the evenings). It’s a pretty incredible 
state of affairs. 

You wake up in the morning, take some crushing public transit system or 
dodge oncoming traffic to get to work, grab some food, and then sit down 
at your desk. If you’re like most people, you sit at a cube in the middle of the 
office, with white noise buzzing around on every side. We’re lucky enough 
to get our own shared office, but it’s not much better since it’s huge windows 
overlook a freeway and the resulting white noise is equally deadening. 

Wired has tried to make the offices look exciting by painting the walls bright 
pink but the gray office monotony sneaks through all the same. Gray walls, 
gray desks, gray noise. The first day I showed up here, I simply couldn’t take 
it. By lunch time I had literally locked myself in a bathroom stall and started 
crying. I can’t imagine staying sane with someone buzzing in my ear all day, 
let alone getting any actual work done. 

Nobody else seems to get work done here either. Everybody’s always coming 
into our room to hang out and chat or invite us to play the new video game 
system that Wired is testing. The upside is that while we haven’t gotten much 
of our work done, we have managed to do many other people’s. Various 
folks from around the office have shown up to have us help them with their 



technical problems, which we usually solve fairly quickly. We joked that we 
should get transferred to their IT department instead of Web development. 

We’ve been spared most of the brunt of it, but their IT policy is pretty scary. 
There’s a company Internet connection, which routes everything through 
the IT HQjn Delaware, presumably the better to spy on us on. On Day 1 
they took our laptops and “backed up” the drives to ensure they had a copy 
of all our data. (We scurried to get our MP3 collections and worse off first.) 

Then they issued us company-approved laptops: terribly-slow iBook G4s 
complete with Conde Nast desktop and screensaver with spy software pre- 
installed. When they gave us the machines we didn’t even have administrator 
access on them. The clock was set to the Eastern time zone; I needed an IT 
department person to change it to show me California time. 

The company laptop is necessary to read our company email which, being 
on a Microsoft Exchange server, requires a special Microsoft email client to 
read. You also need to be on a company laptop to access the company network, 
where you can log into a maze of People Soft web sites to file expense reports 
and change your health benefits. 

I feel wiped after dealing with this non-work for a couple hours, but I can’t 
get any rest from lying on our couch because it too is surrounded by the 
white noise. 

Finally at 5 the office empties out and I can go home where, to compensate 
for the dullness of the days, I brighten up the nights. Life-threatening bicycle 
rides, dinners and movies with friends, museums, running along the beach, 
navigating the nightmare of public transit to visit the new hot spot. And if 
I get home early there are the roommates eager to chat about their days. By 
the time I break away it’s midnight, if not 3am. I had to spend much of the 
weekend sleeping just to catch up. 

And then it’s back to the grind once again. A carousel that never stops to 
let you get off. 

November 15, 2006 




It started when he stopped going home. The rent in San Francisco was so 
expensive and the commutes so painful that it just seemed easier not to leave. 
Nobody really noticed at first — the cleaning crew came in around 7 and 
just assumed he was staying late, while the other employees just assumed he 
was an early riser. And really, who’s going to complain about an employee 
who puts in too much time at the office? Especially when he wasn’t using it 
to get additional work done. 

Then he started wondering if he could eliminate the trip for food too. He 
found a website that sold nutritionally-balanced diet bars and ordered a whole 
tub, which he placed under his desk. All day he’d be munching on one bar 
or another, no longer feeling hungry around lunch or dinner. So he just sat 
at his desk munching instead. Strangely, this didn’t seem to make him any 
more productive. 

Between the lack of exercise and nonstop eating, he began growing fat. 
Nobody really said anything to him about it. He was rail-thin when he 
started so many co-workers were secretly happy to see him put on a few 
pounds. But it quickly got out of hand, with rolls of fat oozing between the 
cracks in his Aeron chair. Still, nobody wants to insult a fat man, so he just 
continued to grow. He never really needed to leave his chair anymore, so he 
didn’t mind it much. 

Soon he began — I’m not quite sure how to describe it, I guess he was sort 
of fusing with the chair. The rolls of fat would sneak through a crack and then 
continue growing, like vines crawling through a gate. It quickly got to the 
point where he couldn’t even get out of the chair if he wanted too, the fat had 
locked him in. He could still roll around the office on it but that movement 
quickly became tiring and as he grew fatter the wheels snapped off. 

Nobody really seemed to mind, though. He had become an office 
fixture — people came to him now. He’d chat with them about their day or 
keep an eye on things for them. Since he was always there he knew everything 



that went on in the office and people could always rely on him for gossip or 
signing for their packages. 

Soon it seemed like he was part of the office itself, like some sort of 
roboreceptionist you read about in Negroponte novels. Desks began subtly 
organizing themselves around him and employees began treating him as 
just another office fixture. There’s the bathroom and there’s the kitchen and 
there’s, well, you know. . . 

And then, one day, they left. Some corporate restructuring or something; 
they were all being moved to a different building. People packed their stuff in 
boxes, cleaners cleaned one more time, and then suddenly they were all gone. 
He was all that was left, keeper of an office without any officers. 

November to, 2006 




A free Gmail clone. A lot of people I know use Gmail for email. It’s not 
because they don’t have access to servers or can’t afford a couple gigabytes of 
disk space. It’s because Gmail is simply the best interface for email out there 
right now. It’d be even better if it was free software, though. 

The biggest problem with Gmail is that you can’t run it offline. But if it was 
free software, you could run it on your local machine and use it even when 
not connected to the net. This would also have the nice benefit of making 
it much faster for the user. Some synchronization code would be necessary, 
but it’d be worth it. 

Gmail isn’t all that complicated; this really shouldn’t be that hard. 

A nice OS XTor interface. I ’ve talked to a bunch of people who would like 
to use Tor, but find it just too complicated. Ideally, the interface should be 
very simple. You download the Tor binary and double-click it to start using 
Tor and quit out to stop. And so that you know it’s working, it’ll have a little 
window that will show you the names of servers you’re connected to. 

OS X has APIs for changing the system preferences; just use those to set 
the SOCKS server properly. Tor has APIs for finding out when you connect 
to a server, use those to set the display. For a decent Mac programmer, this 
can’t be more than a day’s worth of work, but it’d make Tor vastly more usable. 

Decent backup software. I’ve already written about this. It still hasn’t 

If anyone’s interested in building any of these, let me know and perhaps we 
can work something out. 

December 29, 2006 




The stunning success ofWikipedia in creating an encyclopedia from scratch 
has led many to believe that they can achieve similar results. (Want to get 
rich? Easy! Just install the MediaWiki software, title it “how to get rich”, and 
wait for the answers to start flowing in.) 

Clearly the wiki approach does not solve every problem. So what 
made Wikipedia work so well? We can’t say for certain, but by 
looking at similar sites that haven’t taken off — as well as those that 
have (like TV IV — — we can spot some patterns. 

1. Clear goal. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It’s an understandable 
task with a clear end result. When you want to know something, 
you know whether it’s the kind of thing that might be in Wikipedia 
or not. And when you want to contribute, you know what kinds 

of things to add. By contrast simply adding a wiki to your existing 
website has no clear purpose. 

2. Worth doing. Collecting the sum of human knowledge in one place 
is just the kind of grand goal that inspires their people to sink their 
time into a big, collective effort. There are people on Wikipedia 
who spend their time going down long lists of computer-generated 
format and style errors, fixing each one by hand. It’s hard to imagine 
people putting the same amount of effort into cleaning up a wiki 
about the greatness of Tide laundry detergent. But people are willing 
to do it for something only a few people care a lot about (like a very 
specialized technical topic) or something a lot of people care a little 
about (like a piece of popular culture). 

3. Objective standards. It’s pretty clear what an encyclopedia article 
should be. It needs to contain an explanation of what it is and 
why it’s important, the history, the uses (or actions), criticism, and 
pointers to more information. And the whole thing needs to be 
written in a plain, dry style. The result is that it’s pretty clear what 



needs to be done, which means everyone can work together to do it. 
Contrast this with a novel, where the book’s success depends on the 
author’s creativity and, well, novelty. 

4. Made from small pieces. Encyclopedias are huge projects, but 
they’re made up of manageably-sized articles. If an article ever grows 
too long, it can be split into parts (see A1 Gore Controversies). 

When a page is small enough that the whole thing can fit 
comfortably in your head, it’s much easier to work with: you can 
write it in one sitting, you can read it relatively quickly, and you can 
remember the whole thing. Contrast this with books, which are so 
big that working seriously on them requires special dedication. 

5. Each piece is useful. Each article in an encyclopedia is useful in its 
own right. Even if Wikipedia had just started and all it had was an 
article about the Striped Burrowing Tree Frog, that page would still 
be useful, just like every other page on the Internet about an obscure 
topic. The page, if it was good enough, would show up on the right 
Google searches and more Tree Frog fans would begin contributing 
to it. And if that page worked well, it could easily lead to others. 
Contrast this with a dictionary, which you’re probably only going to 
use if it has a high percentage of the words you want to look up. 

6. Segmented subjects. Few people are passionate about learning all 
human knowledge. But many more people are passionate about some 
subset of that. Encyclopedias allow the people who really care about 
French social theorists to spend all their time on that, without ever 
caring about the rest of the site. And the same is true of readers. The 
result is that lots of different people can work on lots of different 
parts, with the whole project getting done as a result, even though 
nobody worked on that explicitly. Contrast this with coming up with 
a theory, where the work requires understanding all the data and 
thinking about it as a whole. 

7. Personally useful. The best way to understand something is to write 
about it and the best thing to write is a layman’s explanation. An 
encyclopedia provides a opportunity to do just that. At the same 
time, it captures what you’ve learned in case you forget it later and 



gives the concept more form so that you’re more likely to remember. 
By contrast, writing guides for children doesn’t teach you much. 

8. Enjoyable work. An encyclopedia mostly consists of people trying 
to explain things and explaining things can be quite fun. At parties, 
if you as someone about the problem they’ve dedicated their life 
to, they’ll gladly talk your ear off about it for hours. Wikipedia 
capitalizes on this tendency while also magnifying it — now it’s not 
just one partygoer, it’s the whole world listening. Contrast this with 
a project like categorizing all the pages on the Internet, which most 
people would find quite boring. 

I came up with these principles just by thinking about why I use Wikipedia 
and not about specific examples of people who have violated them. So it’s a 
little surprising that it turns out to mostly be a list of wiki sites that haven’t 
exactly taken off: Source Watch fails 1, vanity projects fail 2, Wikitorial failed 
3, Wikibooks fails 4, Wiktionary fails 5, the over-specialized sites fail 6, 
Wikijunior fails 7, and Wikispecies fails 8 (at least as far as I’m concerned). 

Of course, even if you get all these things right, that says nothing about 
whether your site will succeed. Success requires more than just a good idea, 
it requires doing the hard work of actually making things happen. But that’s 
a topic for another article. 

December 12, 2006 




I got a phone call from my father the other day. “Oh,”I thought immediately, 
“he’s probably calling to finally apologize for failing to attend that basketball 
game I played at in fourth grade.” But no, I was once again wrong. He was 
calling to pitch his web startup. 

They’re at the racquetball court, the grocery store, the venture capitalists’ 
offices — you can’t avoid this new crowd of so-called “Web 2.0” startups. 
And every time they meet you, if they’re not asking for angel funding, they’re 
asking for suggestions on how they should run their company. 

For a long time, I’d simply tell them they should ask a real expert, like 
Dr. Paulson Graham of the Institute of Advances Startup Studies, but the 
number of queries has become so great that I’ve decided to conduct some 
research of my own. 

I picked out seven recent extremely popular websites. While perhaps not 
having the mindshare of a “Basecamp” or a “Ning”, these websites do have 
the benefit of having tons of actual users. Here they are, ranked roughly in 
order of popularity: 

• MySpace 

• Wikipedia (basically tied) 

• Facebook 

• Flickr (pronounced flick-her) 

• Digg 

• (pronounced dell-dot-icky-oh-dot-you-ess) 

• Google Maps (no popularity data available but I bet it’s pretty popular) 

I looked at all these websites to see what they have in common. Here’s what 
I discovered. 




With the single exception of Flickr, all these websites are hideous. Facebook 
and Wikipedia redesigned late in the game, upgrading their web design from 
“hideous” to “barely tolerable”, but MySpace has continued on, its name 
becoming synonymous with design so atrocious it has actually been known 
to induce vomiting in epileptic Japanese children. Not surprisingly, it’s the 
most popular site on the list. 

Unlike most of Google, Google Maps actually isn’t such a bad looking 
website in itself, but most of its Web 2.0 “cred” comes from its ability to 
make “mashups” in which people stick a Google Map with several hundred 
thousand different little red blurble icons sticking all over it onto a webpage 
whose design sense can best be described as “MySpace knockoff”. Normally 
I don’t go in for guilt by association, but in this case I think it’s deserved. and Digg both attempted redesigns at one point but due to a 
tragic mixup in communication, the web design teams they hired misheard 
their instructions and thought their job was actually to try to make the site look 
worse instead of better. Flaving blown several thousand dollars of their VC’s 
money on this enterprise, they had no choice but to launch the resulting look. 


Let’s start with MySpace. Again, just as it’s a leader in traffic, it’s a leader in 
this category. MySpace has so few features, I don’t even know what it does. 
Neither, apparently, do its users, who in fact create MySpace accounts simply 
to impress their friends and annoy their teachers. (Personal communication) 

The last time Wikipedia added a substantive new feature was the addition of 
categories a couple years ago and, frankly, that was a pretty bad idea because 
it was so poorly implemented. Otherwise it’s basically just been a big box you 
edit text in with a bunch of kluges on top. That’s how it got to be number two. 

Facebook, Flickr, and Digg all add features occasionally, but they’re more 
than counteracted by and Google Maps, which in fact have actively 
taken features away. decided that tag intersections (finding links 
that are tagged with two words) was just too hard to get back online after 
they were purchased by Yahoo! and so they simply took the feature down 



without notice. The site spiked in popularity until they added them back the 
other day and traffic went down once again. 

Google Maps, meanwhile, has just removed everything else from the page 
except for the map and the search box, ensuring no features get in between 
the user and their mapping experience. Like most Google software, though, 
features are definitely not going to be added. 


None of the content on any of these sites is provided by the people who 
made the site. In every case, the content is provided by the users. The only 
exception is Google Maps, where the content is provided NAVTECh 

Combined with the last principle, you might begin to suspect that this is 
simply because the developers of these sites are extremely lazy. But I don’t 
believe that; I think there’s a more complicated principle at work. 

I believe in a theory I’ll call “The Stupidity of Crowds”. Here’s the basic 
idea: if just one person or a small group of people builds a website, they have 
to be at least moderately intelligent. Buying servers and writing programs is 
somewhat hard and takes a little bit of brainpower. This means that the content 
for their site will be similarly intelligent and thus it won’t be of interest to 
the vast majority of Internet users. 

The glorious thing about the Internet, however, is that it allows us to 
aggregate the combined stupidity of literally millions of people. No longer 
do you have to try to play towards the lowest common denominator — now 
you can actually have the lowest common denominator build your site for 
you. No single mortal could possibly come up with the content you find on 
the average MySpace, let alone the hideous color scheme, garish backgrounds, 
and awful auto-playing background music. No, something like that takes The 
Stupidity of Crowds. 


Like 99.999999% of all websites on the Internet, none of these websites 
supports web standards, the documents that explain the proper way to use 



the Web. Enough said. 


MySpace, Flickr,, and Google Maps all sold out to larger 
companies. (Google Maps didn’t even launch until after it was acquired.) 
Wikipedia is apparently some sort bizarre legal construction called a 
“donation-funded non-profit” and this apparently has made it hard to sell. 
(Note to future founders: make sure not to incorporate your company as one 
of these as it can severely hamper your options later on.) 

Facebook and Digg haven’t sold out yet, but I bet they want to. (Another tip: 
taking large quantities of VC money also makes it hard to sell your company, 
both because it gives you a swelled head but also because it gives the VCs 
control over when you can sell, and their heads are really big.) 

December 12, 2006 




A film director named Jaron Lanier recently published an essay titled “Digital 
Maoism”. The essay is a dreadful mishmash of name-calling, whining, and 
downright incoherence, but insofar as Lanier has a point, it is this: people 
often attribute facts and claims to “Wikipedia”, as if it was some giant hive 
mind that combined all our individual thoughts into one group opinion. But, 
in reality, Wikipedia is simply written by people, people with individual voices 
and ideas. And technology is making us lose sight of that. 

(I maybe doing Lanier too great a service by attributing such a coherent 
view to him as nothing quite so clear is ever actually expressed in the article. 
Nonetheless, I will continue as if this is Lanier’s view.) 

It is an interesting point, but what Lanier finds so frightening is precisely 
what I find so exciting about these technologies. I still remember the light 
bulb that went off in my head when my friend Dan Connolly answered a 
question by saying “According to Google, X is the case.” “Google” had said 
no such thing, of course, but the Google algorithm had processed all the links 
on the Web and send Dan the page it thought most relevant to his query. It 
was this particular page that said X, of course, but the notion that Google 
itself was answering questions in this way was a revelation. 

The same is true of Wikipedia. There are individual people, obviously, but 
what makes Wikipedia so fascinating are the technical and social processes 
that combine their work, turning it into something no individual person is 
responsible for or would necessarily endorse. 

I often find myself wondering what Wikipedia would say about such-and- 
such a subject or how important Wikipedia thinks something else is. I refuse 
to edit my Wikipedia page, not only because it’s bad form, but because I’m 
genuinely curious about how Wikipedia sees me. It’s an odd thing, to think a 
site that anyone can edit actually has opinions or concerns or a point of view 
on the world, but it does, and it’s a fascinating one. 

December 12, 2006 




Anarchism has a pretty bad rap. Put aside all the people who think it’s about 
smashing windows and shooting presidents and just focus on the idea {an 
arch — without rulers). If someone told you that you should start a business 
where basically no one is in charge of anything and everyone shares ownership 
of everything and all decisions are made by consensus, you’d think they were 
a hopeless utopian about to get a large dose of reality. Yet that’s pretty much 
what Wikipedia is. 

There’s the obvious anarchism of wikis: namely, “anyone can edit”. No 
intelligence tests or approval rules or even a temporary probation. Anyone can 
just wander up and hit that edit button and get started. Where in the world 
can a random person get a larger audience? That’s pretty radical in itself, but 
things go much deeper. There’s no ownership over text. If you write something, 
as soon as you post it to Wikipedia, it’s no longer “yours” in any real sense. 
Others will modify and mangle it without a second thought and anyone who 
quotes those words in the future will attribute them to “Wikipedia” and not 
to you. In a culture where directors are suing people for fastforwarding over 
the smutty scenes in their movies, that’s pretty wild. 

And while there are a few technical tricks to give some people more software 
features than others, for the most part the Wikipedia community is pretty 
flat. Every non-edit decision, from which pages get deleted to what the logo 
in the corner is, gets made by consensus with everyone getting a chance to 
have their say. 

In real life, few people are willing to take such a radical stand. Even the 
farthest reaches of the far left hold back from proposing such extreme ideas, 
suggesting that not only that such extreme freedom wouldn’t fly in a capitalist 
culture like ours, but that perhaps some of these restrictions are just necessary 
because of human nature. But it’s humans who edit Wikipedia, and mostly 
humans raised in capitalist culture as well. Perhaps it’s time to give more 
extremism a chance. 

December 11, 2006 




Early this year, when I left my job at Wired Digital, I thought I could look 
forward to months of lounging around San Francisco, reading books on the 
beach and drinking fine champagne and eatingyize gray. Then I got a phone 
call. Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive was thinking of pursuing a 
project that I’d been trying to do literally for years. I thought long and hard 
about it and realized I couldn’t pass this opportunity up. So I put aside my 
dreams of lavish living and once again threw myself into my work. Just as 
well, I suppose, since San Francisco’s beaches are freezing cold, champagne 
has a disgusting taste, and foie gras is even worse. 

I thought of the smartest programmers and designers I knew and gave them 
a ring, sat down for coffee with them, threatened to fly out to their homes 
and knock on their doors. In the end, we got together an amazing group of 
people — all sworn to secrecy of course — and in the past few months we’ve 
put together what’s probably the biggest project I ever worked on. 

So today I’m extraordinarily proud to announce the Open Library project. 
Our goal is to build the world’s greatest library, then put it up on the Internet 
free for all to use and edit. Books are the place you go when you have something 
you want to share with the world — our planet’s cultural legacy. And never 
has there been a bigger attempt to bring them all together. 

Visit the Open Library site: https : / /openlibrary .org/about 

July 16, 2007 




A few months ago I was asked if I wanted to give a talk (via video-conference) 
to a technology conference in India. Being extraordinarily bad at saying no, 
I said yes. I asked what they wanted me to talk about and they said I could 
speak about whatever I liked. I thought about it for a while and concluded 
that I should talk about my life and how I got out of a small town in the 
middle of the country and ended up working with famous people. Due to a 
timing screw up, I didn’t get to spend as much time on it as I liked, but I did 
my best. I can put the draft up if anyone wants it. 

(My hope was that talking about all these things would give people lots of 
different subjects to ask questions on, and then I could go into more detail 
about whatever interested people. But oddly, the questions were instead mostly 
about the few things I’d left out of the narrative. I wonder if that means I 
addressed everything in enough detail that I answered all their questions or 
whether I didn’t talk about the things they actually cared about.) 

Giving a talk via videoconference is a painful thing. First, your disembodied 
head is looming six feet tall over a room of people. It’s hard to imagine that’s 
attractive to anyone other than Big Brother’s most ardent fan. Second, you 
have only the blurriest view of the audience you’re speaking to. Third, you 
can’t hear whether they’re laughing or not, because if you get an audio channel 
then all you hear is the delayed sound of your own voice repeated back to 
you — which is incredibly distracting — so instead all you get is silence. 
It’s incredibly difficult to connect with an audience under these conditions. 

Still, I did my best, and I’m told it went reasonably well. I sure had 
fun — there’s a real buzz you get from speaking before an audience, whether 
it’s on the radio or via videocast or in person. Suddenly your depression and 
thirst and hunger melt away and you just light up with enthusiasm and energy. 
The students who filled the room I was addressing applauded and thanked 
me; but in truth I really owe a debt to them. 

September 27, 2007 




Talk, as prepared, for the Tathva 2007 computer conference at NIT Calicut. 

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut used to always title his talks “How to 
Get a Job Like Mine” and then proceed to talk about whatever he felt like. 
I’m in a bit of the opposite situation. I was told I could talk about whatever 
I felt like and I decided that, instead of pontificating for a while about the 
future of the Internet or the power of mass collaboration, the most interesting 
thing I could talk about was probably “How to Get a Job Like Mine”. 

So how did I get a job like mine? Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the 
right genes: I was born white, male, American. My family was fairly well-off 
and my father worked in the computer industry. Unfortunately, I don’t know 
of anyway of choosing these things, so that probably isn’t much help to you. 

But, on the other hand, when I started I was a very young kid stuck in a 
small town in the middle of the country. So I did have to figure out some 
tricks for getting out of that. In the hopes of making life a little less unfair, 
I thought I’d share them with you. 


The first thing I did, which presumably all of you have already got covered, 
was to learn about computers, the Internet, and Internet culture. I read a 
bunch of books, I read enormous numbers of web pages, and I tried stuff. 
First I joined mailing lists and tried to understand the discussions until I felt 
comfortable jumping in and trying to participate for myself. Then I looked 
at web sites and tried to build my own. And finally I learned how to build 
web applications and I started building them. I was thirteen. 


The first site I built was called The idea was to have a free, online 
encyclopedia that anyone could edit or add things to or reorganize, right 



through their web browser. I built the whole thing, added lots of cool features, 
tested it on all sorts of browsers, and was very proud of it. It actually won 
even a prize for one of the best new web applications that year. Unfortunately, 
the only people I knew at the time were other kids in my school, so I didn’t 
really have anyone writing a lot of encyclopedia articles. (Luckily, several 
years later, my mother pointed me to this new site called “Wikipedia” that 
was doing the same thing.) 

The second site I built was called The idea was that instead of having 
to scrounge around the Internet for news from all sorts of different web pages, 
why not just have one program that went and grabbed news from all those 
web pages and put them in one place. I built it and got it working, but it 
turned out I wasn’t the only one who had that sort of idea at the time — lots 
of people were working on this new technique, then called “syndication”. A 
group of them split off and decided to work on a specification for this thing 
called RSS 1.0 and I joined them. 


It was summer and I was out of school and didn’t have a job, so I had a lot 
of free time on my hands. And I spent all of it obsessively reading the RSS 
1.0 mailing list and doing all sorts of odd jobs and whatever else they needed 
someone to do. Soon enough, they asked me if I wanted to become a member 
of the group, and I ended up becoming a co-author and then a co-editor of 
the RSS 1.0 specification. 

RS S 1 .0 was built on top of this technology called RDF, which was a bit of a 
source of heated debate on the RSS lists, so I started looking more into RDF, 
joining the RDF mailing lists, reading things and asking stupid questions and 
slowly starting to figure things out. Soon enough, I was becoming known in 
the RDF world and when they announced a new working group to develop 
the next RDF spec, I decided to sneak on. 

First I asked the working group members if I could join. They said no. But 
I really wanted to be on that working group, so I tried to find another way. I 
read the rules of the W3C, which was the standards body that operated the 
Working Group. The rules said that while they could reject any requests to 
join from an individual, if an organization that was an official member of the 
W3C asked to put someone on the working group, they couldn’t say no. So 



I looked down the list of W3C member organizations, found the one that 
seemed friendliest, and asked them to put me on the Working Group. They did. 

Being a Working Group member meant weekly phone calls with all the other 
members, lots of mailing list and IRC discussion, occasionally flying off to 
odd cities to meet in person, and lots of all-around getting-to-know people. 

I was also a true believer on the subject of RDF, so I worked hard to get 
other people to adopt it. When I saw that professor Lawrence Lessig was 
starting a new organization called Creative Commons, I sent him an email 
saying he should use RDF for his project and explaining why. A few days 
later he wrote back saying “Good idea. Why don’t you do that for us?” 

So I ended up joining Creative Commons which ended up flying me out 
to all sorts of conferences and parties and so on where I ended up meeting 
even more people. Between all of this people were starting to know who I 
was and I was starting to have friends in lots of different places and fields. 


And then I left it all and went to college for a year. I attended Stanford 
University, an idyllic little school in California where the sun is always shining 
and the grass is always green and the kids are always out getting a tan. It’s got 
some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn’t find it a 
very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly 
unconcerned with their studies. 

But towards the end of the year, I got an email from a writer named Paul 
Graham who said that he was starting up a new project, Y Combinator. 
The idea behind Y Combinator is that you find a bunch of really smart 
programmers, fly them out to Boston for the summer, and give them a little 
bit of money and the paperwork to start a company. They work really really 
hard on building something while you teach them everything they need to 
know about business and hook them up with investors and acquirers and so 
on. And Paul suggested I apply. 

So I did and I got in and after lots of pain and toil and struggle I found 
myself working on a little site called The first thing to know about 



Reddit was that we had no clue what we were doing. We had no experience in 
business. We had hardly any real experience in building production software. 
And we had no idea whether or why what we were doing was working. Every 
morning we woke up and made sure the server wasn’t down and that our site 
hadn’t been overrun by spammers and that all our users hadn’t left. 

When I first started at Reddit, growth was slow. The site was put online very 
early — within weeks of starting work on it — but for the first three months 
it hardly got above three thousand visitors a day, which is about baseline for 
a useful RSS feed. Then, in a couple weeks of marathon coding sessions, we 
moved the site from Lisp to Python and I wrote an article about it for my blog. 
It got a lot of attention — Hell hath no fury like a Lisp fan scorned — and 
even today I still run into people at parties who, when I mention that I worked 
at Reddit, say “Oh, the site that switched from Lisp.” 

Around that time traffic really started taking off. In the next three months, 
our traffic doubled twice. Every morning we’d wake up to check our traffic 
graphs and see how we were doing — whether the new feature we’d launched 
had gotten us more attention, whether word of mouth was still spreading our 
site, whether all our users had abandoned us yet. And every day the number 
grew higher. Although we couldn’t shake the impression that we seemed to 
grow faster whenever we took a break from doing actual work on the site. 

We still had no idea how to make money. We sold t-shirts on the site, but 
every time we made a little bit of money on those we spent it on ordering 
more t-shirts. We signed up with a major Web ad representative to sell ads 
on our site, but they never seemed to be able to sell any ads for us and we 
rarely made more than, literally, a couple of dollars a month. Another idea 
we had was licensing the “Reddit technology” to let other people build sites 
that worked like Reddit. But we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to license 
it from us. 

Soon, Reddit was getting millions of users every month — a number that far 
surpassed the average American magazine. I know that, because I was talking 
to a lot of magazine publishers at the time. They all wondered how Reddit ’s 
magic could work for them. @@ At first, we just said yes to everything they 
suggested. And, fortunately for us, that worked out, since we could program 
faster than they could write up an official contract for what they wanted. 



In addition, online news sites started noticing that Reddit could send them 
vast amounts of traffic. They somehow thought they could encourage this 
by adding “reddit this” links to all of their articles. As far as I know, adding 
such links doesn’t actually improve your chances of being popular on Reddit 
(although it does make your site look more ugly), but it did give us lots of 
free advertising. 

Soon enough, the partnership talks turned to talks of acquisition. Acquisition: 
the thing we’d always dreamed of! No longer would he have to worry about 
making money. Some company out there would take over that responsibility 
in exchange for just making us all rich. We dropped everything to negotiate 
with our acquirers. And then it stayed dropped. 

We negotiated for months. First, we argued over the price. We prepared 
plans and spreadsheets and went to headquarters to make presentations and 
had endless meetings and phone calls. Finally, they refused our price, and we 
walked away. Then they changed their tune and we finally shook hands and 
agreed on the deal — only to begin negotiating on some other key point, only 
to walk away again. We must have walked away three or four times before 
we finally got a contract we could agree to. We must have stopped doing real 
work for six months. 

I started going crazy from having to think so much about money. We all 
started getting touchy from the stress and lack of productive work. We begun 
screaming at each other and then not talking to each other and then launching 
renewed efforts to work together only to have the screaming begin again. The 
company almost fell apart before the deal went through. 

But eventually, we went into the offices of our lawyers to actually sign all 
the documents and the next morning the money was in our bank accounts. 
It was done. 

We all flew out to San Francisco and begun working at the offices of Wired 
News (we were purchased by Conde Nast, a big publishing company which 
owns Wired, along with many other magazines). 

I was miserable. I couldn’t stand San Francisco. I couldn’t stand office life. I 
couldn’t stand Wired. I took a long Christmas vacation. I got sick. I thought 



of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, 
I was asked to resign. 


The first couple days without a job were odd. I hung around the house. I 
took advantage of the San Francisco sunshine. I read some books. But soon I 
felt like I needed a project again. I started writing a book. I wanted to collect 
together all the interesting studies I’d found in the field of psychology and tell 
them, not as research results, but as stories. Every day I went down to Stanford 
to do research in their library. (Stanford is a great school for psychologists.) 

But one day I got a call from Brewster Kahle. Brewster founded the Internet 
Archive, an incredible organization which tries to digitize everything it can get 
its hands on and put it all up on the Web. He said he wanted to get started on 
a project we’d talked about in the past. The idea was to collect information on 
all the books in the world in one place — a free wiki. I got right to work and 
over the next couple months I began calling libraries, roping in programmers, 
working with a designer, and doing all sorts of other odd jobs to get the site 
online. That project ended up becoming Open Library and a demo version 
is now up at Much of it was built by a very talented 
Indian programmer: Anand Chitipothu. 

Another friend, Seth Roberts, suggested we try to find some way to reform 
the higher education system. We couldn’t really agree on a good solution, 
but we did agree on another good idea: a wiki to tell students what different 
jobs are like. That site should be launching soon. 

Then another old friend, Simon Carstensen, sent me an email saying he was 
graduating college and wanted to start a company with me. Well, I’d been 
keeping a list of companies I thought were good ideas and pulled the top one 
off the list. The idea was this: make building a web site as easy as filling in a 
textbox. Over the next few months we worked and worked to make things 
simpler and simpler (and a little more complex as well). The result, which 
launched a couple weeks ago, is 

I also signed up to mentor two Summer of Code projects, both of which 
were stunningly ambitious and with much luck should be launching soon. 



I also decided I wanted to get into journalism. My first print article got 
published the other week. I also started a couple blogs about science and 
begun working on an academic paper of my own. It builds upon a study I did 
a while back about who actually wrote Wikipedia. Some people, including 
Jimmy Wales, the kind of public spokesman of Wikipedia, claimed that 
Wikipedia wasn’t such a big distributed project after all but instead was only 
written by around 500 or so people, many of whom he knew. He had done 
some simple studies to back this up, but I ran the numbers more carefully 
and found the opposite: the vast majority of Wikipedia was created by new 
editors, mostly people who didn’t even bother to create accounts, adding a 
couple sentences here and there. How did Wales make such a big mistake? He 
looked at the number of changes each user made to Wikipedia, but didn’t look 
at the size of the change. It turns out there is this group of 500 who makes 
an enormous number of changes to Wikipedia, but all of their changes are 
quite small: they do things like fix spelling and change formatting. It seems 
much more reasonable to believe that 500 people went around editing much 
of an encyclopedia than it does to think they wrote it. 


What’s the secret? How can I boil down things I do into pithy sentences 
that make myself sound as good as possible? Here goes: 

Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call 
intelligence just boils down to curiosity. 

Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological 
degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I 
attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something. 

Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people 
refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it 
or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could 
have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right 
and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at 
something you’ll do pretty well. 

I followed these rules. And here I am today, with a dozen projects on my 



plate and my stress level through the roof once again. 

Every morning I wake up and check my email to see which one of my 
projects has imploded today, which deadlines I’m behind on, which talks I 
need to write, and which articles I need to edit. 

Maybe, one day, you too can be in the same position. If so, I hope I’ve done 
something to help. 

30 September 2007 




These days it seems like everyone is making productivity software — software 
that helps you manage all the the things you need to get done. Yet all of them 
seem to be missing some basic pieces. A productivity application has two jobs: 
remembering everything you need to do and getting you to do it. The second 
is necessary because without it, you’ll put all your tasks in the application and 
then never do them. The first is necessary because otherwise the application 
will have no idea what to tell you to do. 

I think the ideal piece of productivity software would be like having a great 
assistant or a campaign manager: someone who intimately knows all aspects 
of your life’s todo lists and schedules and wasn’t afraid of saying you had to 
wrap this meeting up because you promised the kids you’d be home at 5 to take 
them to the game. Judged against this standard, present productivity software 
is woefully lacking — it’s usually not much more than a glorified todo list. 

Remembering everything: Most software lets you store the classical todo list 
items: call Jon back, finish report, buy toy for kids. 1 Some systems even branch 
out into vaguer life goal stuff: spend time with family, become accomplished 
novelist, learn more about history. But that’s about it. 

But most people also have tasks in their project management software (fix 
this bug), various calendar-style events (lunch with Jon, catch plane), and a 
vast quantity of email (answer Jon’s question, fix the frobnitz and report back 
to Bob, etc.) Yet no one seems to have dared to integrate their software with 
a calendar, email client, or even bug tracking software. 

Since it’s unlikely anyone writing productivity software is also going to 
write an email client, a calendar, and a bug tracker (although it would be 
nice), I’ll settle for having support for plugins that import tasks and events 
from these various other apps. It has to be very simple to upload your whole 
life to your todo app. 

Getting you to do stuff: The best I’ve seen is some kind of filtering in which 



the software lets you only look at tasks that can be done in 5 minutes while on 
a train. But if you’re the kind of person who’s dysfunctional enough to need 
productivity software, simply having a big list of tasks probably isn’t going 
to help you much. (I can write a big list of tasks in Notepad.) Instead, the 
software should be proactive about getting you to do stuff, like telling you to 
quit goofing off and get ready for that big deadline you have tomorrow or to 
hurry up and answer that urgent email from yesterday. 

How does it do this? First, it needs to know what’s important. After you 
import your life it should let you walk through and triage it all: look at each 
one and decide how important it is (or whether it’s already done). I’ve written 
a program to do this just for my mail and it’s been invaluable — within a 
couple hours a morass of three thousand messages turned into a neatly labeled 
set of piles ordered by importance. Similarly, it can turn a tall pile of assorted 
todos into the beginnings of an action plan. 

Then comes the crucial part: it tells you what to do. I’m not demanding 
anything fancy, like a robot dog that follows you around and barks orders 
(although that might be nice). I’m just saying provide a little pop-up window 
with a suggested next task. Psychologically, it’s easy to ignore a long todo list. 
In fact, long todo lists are depressing and make you want to look away. But 
a simple suggestion about one particular thing to do next is much harder to 

Of course, the suggestions have to be good. The software would generate 
them by taking into account everything it knows about your tasks and calendar 
today. And if you still don’t like the suggestion, you tell the program you can’t 
do it because...: 

• that’ll take too long (adds a time estimate to the task; used to make sure 
the task can be done before the next event on the calendar) 

• that’s not very important (adds a priority to the task; used to sort by 

• I can’t do that here (adds a physical context to the task, like being in 
a certain place; used to find tasks you can do in your current context) 

• I can’t do that yet (adds a dependency; dependencies can then be checked 
occasionally to see if they’ve been finished yet) 

• I already did that (marks as done) 



• that’s not due for a while (adds a due date; used to make sure things 
get done before their deadlines) 

and so on. Ideally, the system would be well-informed and smart enough that 
you could trust its predictions. But even if it wasn’t perfect, just suggesting tasks 
in order of priority would likely be a vast improvement over the whimsical 
system used by most people in need of productivity software. It’s hard to 
imagine such a tool wouldn’t be a godsend. 

Most of the classical productivity guides are aimed at middle managers whose 
lives, as far as we can tell from the examples, consist of calling people, finishing 
reports, and placating their families. Who am I to break with tradition? 

October 29, 2007 




A lot of the work I’ve been doing on Open Library for the past few months 
has to do with handling large quantities of data. Either I’m writing crawlers to 
download them from various public web sites, or I’m meeting with librarians to 
persuade them to give me copies, or I’m evaluating algorithms for processing 
them, or building tools for viewing it all. 

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And while I’ve been doing this for information about books, I’ve noticed 
my friends doing similar things in other fields. Reporters try to get large data 
sets to write stories. Programmers get large data sets to add features to their 
sites. Friends are trying to make available data about the inner workings of 
the government. 



And while each community has ways of talking to each other — reporters 
talking to other reporters, RDF people talking to other RDF people, library 
hackers talking to other library hackers — there’s no community that cuts 
across these topical lines. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot there we 
could share, from tips on how not to get caught when crawling to tools to 
make it easier to build big charts and maps. 

So that’s why I’ve started a new community site for people who work with 
large data sets. It’s called and I’d really appreciate it if you joined 
the mailing lists and spread the word. 

January 15, 2008 




As you’ve probably noticed, it’s political insanity season in the US. I can 
hardly go outside these days without running into someone complaining 
about the latest piece of campaign gossip. I’ve mostly tried to keep it off this 
blog, but it’s hard to not get swept up in the fever. As someone who wants 
to make a difference in the world, I’ve long wondered whether there was an 
effective way for a programmer to get involved in politics, but I’ve never been 
able to quite figure it out. 

Well, recent events and Larry Lessig got me thinking about it again and 
I’ve spent the past few months working with and talking to some amazing 
people about the problem. I’ve learned a lot and must have gone through a 
dozen different project ideas, but I finally think I’ve found something. It’s 
not so much a finished solution as a direction, where I hope to figure more 
of it along the way. 



So the site is called and the plan has three parts. First, pull in 
data sources from all over — district demographics, votes, lobbying records, 
campaign finance reports, etc. — and let people explore them in one elegant, 
unified interface. I want this to be one of the most powerful, compelling 
interfaces for exploring a large data set out there. 

But just giving people information isn’t enough; unless you give them an 
opportunity to do something about it, it will just make them more apathetic. 
So the second part of the site is building tools to let people take action: write 
or call your representative, send a note to local papers, post a story about 
something interesting you’ve found, generate a scorecard for the next election. 

And tying these two pieces together will be a collaborative database of 
political causes. So on the page about global warming, you’ll be able to learn 
more about the problem and proposed solutions, research the donors and 
votes on the issue, and see or start a letter-writing campaign. 

All of it, of course, is free software and free data. And it’s all got a dozen 
different APIs to make it easy for others to build on what we’ve done in their 
own work. The goal is to be a hub, connecting citizens, activists, organizations, 
politicians, programmers, and everybody else who’s interested in politics. 

The hope is to make it as interesting and easy as possible to pull people into 
politics. It’s an ambitious goal with many pieces and possibilities, but with 
all the excitement right now we want to get something up as fast as possible. 
So we’ll be developing live on, releasing pieces as soon as we 
finish them. Our first goal is to put up data about every representative and 
a way to write them. 

I’ve managed to find an amazing group of people willing to help out with 
building it so far. And the Sunlight Network has encouraged me and graciously 
agreed to fund it. But we still need many more hands, especially programmers. 
If you’re interested in working on it, whether as a volunteer or for pay, please 
send me an email telling me what you’d like to help with. 

We only officially started work yesterday, so there’s not much up yet, but 
hopefully it’ll give you a sense of where we’re going. 

April 14, 2008 




When people talk about how government can promote startups, there seems 
to be a fairly standard consensus: we need more economic inequality. Lower 
income 1 and capital gains 2 taxes provide more incentive to work, looser labor 
laws make it easier to fire non-performers, and large private wealth funds 
provide investment capital. 

But having been through a startup myself, I think there’s much more you 
can do in the other direction: decreasing economic inequality. People love 
starting companies. You get to be your own boss, work on something you 
love, do something new and exciting, and get lots of attention. As Daniel 
Brook points out in 1 he Trap , 28% of Americans have considered starting 
their own business. And yet only 7% actually do. 

What holds them back? The lack of a social safety net. A friend of mine, 
a brilliant young technologist who’s been featured everywhere from PBS to 
Salon, stayed in academia and the corporate world while all of her friends 
were starting companies and getting rich. Why? Because she couldn’t afford 
to lose her health insurance. Between skyrocketing prices and preexisting 
condition exclusions, it’s almost impossible for anyone who isn’t in perfect 
health to quit their job. (I only managed because I was on a government plan.) 

Anyone with children is also straight out. Startup founders tend to be quite 
young, in no small part because no one can afford to support a family on 
a startup founder’s salary. But if we had universal child care, that would be 
much less of an issue. Parents would be free to pursue their dreams, knowing 
that their children were taken care of. And universal higher education could 
let parents spend their savings on getting a business started, instead of their 
children’s tuition. Plus, it’d give many more kids the training and confidence 
they needed to start a company. 

And those large private wealth funds that result from growing inequality? A 
real problem for startup founders is that they’re too large. It used to be that 
you could borrow a couple thousand dollars from friends and neighbors to 



get your business off the ground. Nowadays, they’re too busy trying to make 
ends meet to be able to afford anything like that. Meanwhile, those large 
wealth funds I mentioned are now so big they can only afford to invest in 
multi-million dollar chunks — much more than the average founder needs, 
or can even justify. And the large investments come with large amounts of 
scrutiny, further narrowing the recipient pool. 

But imagine if the government provided a basic minimum income, like 
Richard Nixon once proposed. Instead of having to save up (increasingly 
difficult in a world in which the only way to survive is on credit card debt) 
or borrow money to stay afloat, you could live off the government-provided 
income as you got things started. Suddenly having to quit your job would no 
longer be such a huge leap — there ’d be a real social safety net to catch you. 
(Not to mention if those labor laws some people want to loosen required 
your old job to take you back if things didn’t work out.) 

Of course, there is some truth to the standard proposals. Some startup 
founders are encouraged by dreams of financial security, and high taxes can 
make that dream more elusive. And complex labor regulations can make it 
difficult to get new companies off the ground. But it’s not an issue of whether 
we should have taxes or labor laws — it’s an issue of how they’re targeted. 

Estate taxes on inherited fortunes would have basically no impact on startup 
founders, but could go a long way to funding a social safety net. And since 
most startups are acquired as stock, income taxes are basically irrelevant — it’s 
really capital gains tax that gets applied. There’s no reason the government 
couldn’t apply a lower capital gains tax to startups that get acquired than 
they do to the shares of publicly-traded companies that large investors trade. 

The same is true for labor laws: preventing large companies from firing people 
at random can provide some much-needed stability to their lives, especially if 
they’re saving up money in the hopes of going into business themselves. But 
there’s no reason such laws also have to be applied to small startups, where 
the company is more likely to go out of business than to fire you. 

Look at social democratic Europe, where these policy prescriptions have 
been tried. While there’s much less of a culture of entrepreneurship and only 
15% of Europeans think about starting their own company, nearly all (14.7%) 



of them actually go ahead and do it. 

The fact is, if governments really want to promote startups and the economic 
innovation they bring, they shouldn’t listen to the standard refrain of cut taxes 
and deregulate. They need to start rebuilding the social safety net, so that their 
citizens know that if they go out on a limb and try something risky, someone 
will be there to catch them if things don’t work out. 

Thanks, to Daniel Brook’s hook The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner- 
Take-All America for suggesting this line of argument and providing the statistics. 

June 9, 2008 

1 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ inequality . html 

2 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ america . html 




Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it 
for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published 
over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked 
up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the 
most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts 
to publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has 
fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away 
but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that 
allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will 
only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will 
have been lost. 

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the 
work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the 
folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite 
universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s 
outrageous and unacceptable. 

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, 
they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s 
perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is 
something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back. 

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you 
have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge 
while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, 
you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share 
it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling 
download requests for friends. 

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You 



have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the 
information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. 

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called 
stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral 
equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t 
immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse 
to let a friend make a copy. 

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which 
they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. 
And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving 
them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies. 

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light 
and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to 
this private theft of public culture. 

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and 
share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright 
and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on 
the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file 
sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. 

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message 
opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. 
Will you join us? 

Aaron Swartz 
July 2008, Eremo, Italy 

1 . Source : https : / / archive . org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/ 




37signals recommends that software developers pursue what they call 
the Hollywood Launch 1 . They don’t give any argument for this method, 
except perhaps the title (as if Hollywood was a business you should try to 
imitate?) — I guess the idea is that you’re supposed to do it since 37signals 
says to. 

The basic idea behind the Hollywood Launch is simple: you release a few 
hints about your product to build buzz, slowly revealing more and more until 
the big day, when you throw open the doors and people flood your site, sent 
there by all the blog coverage and email alerts. 

This may work well for Hollywood — if your movie is a big hit at the 
box-office on opening weekend, then the movie theaters are more likely to 
keep showing it in the weeks to come and you get credit for being “one of 
the weekend’s biggest films”. But for software developers, it’s moronic. Your 
software isn’t being released in theaters, it’s available over the Web. You don’t 
have to worry about the theater no longer showing after week one; you can 
keep pushing it for years, growing your userbase. 

Instead what happens when software developers try the Hollywood Launch, 
and I’ve seen this many times, is that users indeed do flood to your site on 
launch day but. . . 

1. They bring the site down from the load. You scramble to get it back 
up and succeed by coding like a mad man, only to find. . . 

2. They discover some big bug that you never quite noticed before, 
which makes the whole thing look like embarrassing hackwork. 

( What ? You forgot to test that last-minute JavaScript change in IE6 
1/2?) So you’re desperately rushing to fix the bug before the traffic 
dies down, rush-patching things and restarting the server when. . . 

3. You bring the site down for everyone because there was a syntax 
error in your patch that keeps the server from coming back up. You 
fix it while cursing yourself madly. Finally everything seems to work. 



You take a breath and decide to see what people are saying about you 
on the Web, only to discover. . . 

4. Everyone misunderstood what your product does because your front 
page wasn’t clear enough. Now they all think it’s stupid and wonder 
aloud how you even know how to breathe. So you reply in all the 
comment threads and fix your front page to ensure no one could 
possibly misunderstand what it is you’re doing just in time to find. . . 

5. All the traffic is gone. 

Tomorrow, hardly any of those users come back. Your traffic graphs look like 
the sharpest mountain you’ve ever seen: a huge climb up and then, almost 
immediately, a similarly-sized crash back down. 

So what do you do then? Well, you do what you should have done all along: 
you grow the site. 

I’ll call this technique the Gmail Launch, since it’s based on what Gmail 
did. Gmail is probably one of the biggest Web 2.0 success stories, so there’s 
an argument in its favor right there. Here’s how it works: 

1. Have users from day one. Obviously at the very beginning it’ll just 
be yourself and your co-workers, but as soon as you have something 
that you don’t cringe while using, you give it to your friends and 
family. Keep improving it based on their feedback and once you have 
something that’s tolerable, let them invite their friends to use it too. 

2. Try to get lots of feedback from these new invitees, figuring out 
what doesn’t make sense, what needs to be fixed, and what things 
don’t work on their bizarre use case combination. Once these are 
all straightened out, and they’re using it happily, you let them invite 
their friends. Repeat until things get big enough that you need to. . . 

3. Automate the process, giving everyone some invite codes to share. 

By requiring codes, you protect against a premature slashdotting and 
force your users to think carefully about who actually would want to 
use it (getting them to do your marketing for you). Plus, you make 
everyone feel special for using your product. (You can also start 
(slowly!) sending invite codes to any email lists you might have.) 

4. Iterate: give out invite codes, fix bugs, make sure things are stable. 
Stay in this phase until the number of users you’re willing to invite is 



about the same as the number you expect will initially sign up if you 
make the site public. For Gmail, this was a long time, since a lot of 
people wanted invites. You can probably safely do it sooner. 

5. Take off the invite code requirement, so that people can use the 
product just by visiting its front page. Soon enough, random people 
will come across it from Google or various blogs and become real 

6. If all this works — if random people are actually happy with your 
product and you’re ready to grow even larger — then you can start 
building buzz and getting press and blog attention. The best way 
to do this is to have some kind of news hook — some gimmick or 
controversial thing that everyone will want to talk about. (With 
reddit, the big thing was that we switched from Lisp to Python, 
which was discussed endlessly in the Lisp and Python communities 
and gave us our first big userbase.) 

7. Start marketing. Once you start using up all the growth you can 
get by word-of-mouth (and this can take a while — Google is only 
getting to this stage now), you can start doing advertising and other 
marketing-type things to provide the next big boost in growth. 

The result will be a graph that just keeps accelerating and climbing up. That’s 
the graph that everyone loves to see: solid growth, not a one-day wonder. 
Good luck. 

Since 37signals quotes from people who followed their advice, I thought I 
might as well do the same, mojombo 2 : 

• I find this to be excellent advice. This is exactly the approach we took 
at GitHub almost down to the letter. It took about 2 months until 
the site was good enough to use to host the GitHub source, another 
month until we started private beta with invites, and three more 
months until public launch. 

• Artificial scarcity is a great technique to generate excitement for a 
product while also limiting growth to a rate that won’t melt your 
servers. We worked through a huge number of problems and early 
users gave us some of the ideas that have defined GitHub. By doing 
a Hollywood launch, things would have been very different and I am 
convinced, very much worse. 



• Do not, I repeat, DO NOT underestimate how much your users 
will help you to define your product. If you launch without having 
significant user feedback time, you’ve essentially thrown away a 
massive (and free) focus group study. 

• Let me also say that when we finally did our public launch, there 
was plenty of buzz, and all of it was the RIGHT kind of buzz. The 
buzz that attracts real, lasting customers (and no, we weren’t on 
TechCrunch, that traffic is garbage). 

August 22, 2008 

1 . http : / / gettingreal . 3 7signals . com/ chl3_Hollywood_Launch . php 

2 . http : / / news . ycombinator .com/item?id=284057 




In 1787, when America’s framers wanted to argue for its Constitution, 
they published their arguments (the Federalist Papers) anonymously. 
Whistleblowers have released everything from the Pentagon Papers to the 
Downing Street Memos. Anonymous speech is a First Amendment right. 

And yet, on the supposedly Wild West frontier of the Internet, publishing 
anonymously is not so easy. Hosting providers require a name and credit card, 
which they have to hand over to the FBi at the drop of a National Security 
Letter. Free hosting sites zealously obey takedown requests and require 
publishers to reveal their identity if they want their stuff put back up (a tactic 
Scientologists have used). Luckily there are now services like Wikileaks 1 , but 
they only publish a very narrow range of content. 

But, talking with Virgil Griffith and others, I hit upon a new way of allowing 
for anonymous publishing. The amazing Tor project 2 lets you use the Internet 
anonymously, by disguising your traffic thru a long series of relays. Less well- 
known is that it also allows for anonymous publishing, by running the system 
in reverse. Unfortunately, you need the Tor software to visit anonymously- 
published sites, but we realized there’s no reason this need be so. 

So I dusted off some work I’d begun years and years ago and build a tor2web 
proxy. Now anyone with a web browser can visit an anonymous Tor URL 
like http: //sexy36iscapohm7b. onion/ from any Web browser, without any 
special software, just by going to: 

Which means that publishing an anonymous website is now also fairly easy. 
(There are instructions on the Tor site 3 — just replace the .onion when you 
hand out the URL. If that’s too tricky, you could use an existing provider 
like Freedom Hosting.) 

tor2web proxies act like any other sort of proxy or router; they just route 
traffic from a client to a server and don’t get involved themselves, so they can’t 
be held legally responsible for the content that passes thru them. But to prevent 



against a single point of failure, I’m asking others to set up tor2web nodes 4 to 
distribute the load. The next step, of course, is to support mirroring 5 so that 
people can still find interesting files, even if one hidden server goes down. 

Here’s to anonymity — and more tools protecting it. 

October 24, 2008 



3 . https : //www. torpro ject . org / docs/tor-hidden-service . html . en 






OCLC is running scared. My comments on their attempt to monopolize 
library records has been Slashdotted, our petition has received hundreds of 
signatures, and they’re starting to feel the heat. 

At a talk I gave this morning to area librarians, an OCLC rep stood up and 
attempted to assure the crowd that what I was saying “wasn’t entirely true”. 
“What wasn’t true?” I asked. “I’d love to correct things.” She declined to say, 
insisting she “didn’t want to get into an argument.” 

This evening, OCLC’s Vice President for WorldCat and Metadata, provides 
more details. In a blog comment (which, I understand, was sent to OCLC 
members), she tries to downplay the issue, continuing the OCLC trend of 
doublespeak about this serious change. 

She tries to claim we’re on the same side (“We are likely in solid agreement”) 
and insists they are just updating “the principles . . . which have been in place 
since 1987” and absurdly claiming that the new rules are just a “clarification”. 
(This is just one of a number of black- is -white falsehoods in her post.) 

But never once does she defend the actual changes. And they’re right there 
in black-and-white: the records aren’t allowed to be used in anything that 
“substantially replicates the function, purpose, and/ or size of WorldCat.” I’m 
not sure how much clearer they can get; these new rules prohibit anyone from 
building anything that gets anywhere close to WorldCat. 

My fundamental point stands: As servers have gotten cheaper, it’s become 
easy to do for free the things OCLC charges such outrageous amounts for. 
But OCLC can’t have that — they’d have to give up their huge office complex 
and high salaries (Ms. Calhoun was recently hired away from academia, so 
her salary isn’t available yet, but her fellow VPs make around $300, 000/year). 
So they’re trying to stamp out the competition. 

Karen insists that “OCLC welcomes collaboration with Open Library”, 



which seems a funny way of putting it. As I said last time, they’ve played 
hardball: trying to cut off our funding, hurt our reputation, and pressured 
libraries not to cooperate. When we tried to make a deal with them, they 
dragged their feet for months, pretended to come to terms, and then had 
their lawyers send us an “agreement” to sign that would require we take all 
OCLC-related records off our site. 

Karen, if you really want to “increas[e] information access to users around 
the globe”, like you say, here’s an easy first step: put the 2 million WorldCat 
web pages you shared with Google and Yahoo up for download on your 
website. It’s only a small portion of your catalog and you’ve already shared it 
with others. Until you take even a baby step like that, it’s hard to take your 
protestations of good intent seriously. 

November 15, 2008 




You want to get something done. But it’s too big to do it by yourself, so you 
bring in some friends to help out. In your dreams, all your friends just “click”, 
understand exactly what it is they’re all supposed to do, and do it quickly and 
effective. In reality, this almost never happens. 

In order for any team to succeed, they need someone helping them all stay 
on track — someone who we will call a “manager”. 

The word manager makes many people uncomfortable. It calls up the image 
of a bossman telling you what to do and forcing you to slave away at doing 
it. That is not effective management. 

A better way to think of a manager is as a servant, like an editor or a personal 
assistant. Everyone wants to be effective; a manager’s job is to do everything 
they can to make that happen. The ideal manager is someone everyone would 
want to have. 

Instead of the standard “org chart” with a CEO at the top and employees 
growing down like roots, turn the whole thing upside down. Employees are 
at the top — they’re the ones who actually get stuff done — and managers 
are underneath them, helping them to be more effective. (The CEO, who 
really does nothing, is of course at the bottom.) 

Most guides on management are written for big bosses at big companies, 
not people starting something new who want their team to be as effective 
as possible. (Hi, startup founders!) So herewith, a guide to effective non- 
hierarchical management. 


Management is not a typical job. People who manage programmers don’t 
spend their day programming. Nor do they spend their day writing memos. 
In fact, from the outside, it may appear like they don’t spend their day doing 



very much at all. Don’t be fooled. 

Management is a serious job. It is incredibly difficult and wildly consuming. 
As an employee, if you miss a day off work, it’s no big deal: some work doesn’t 
get done and you (or someone else) has to catch up on it later. As a manager, 
it can become a serious problem — if you’re not working, then the dozen 
people you serve aren’t working effectively as well. It makes knocking off 
work to go to the fair a stressful proposition. 

On the other hand, it can be incredibly rewarding. If you do your job right, 
you turn a group of individuals into a team, a group that’s more effective than 
the sum of its parts. Together, you and your team can achieve amazing things. 
As a manager, your task is to serve the team — to make it as effective as it 
can possibly be, even if that means stepping on the toes of a few individuals. 

One incredibly popular misconception is that managers are just there to 
provide “leadership” — you set everyone up, get them pointed in the right 
direction, and then let them go while you go back to the “real” stuff, whether 
it’s building things yourself, meeting with funders, or going on the road and 
talking up your organization. Those are all perfectly valid jobs, but they are 
not management. You have to pick one. You cannot do both. 


As the manager, it’s your job to make sure things get done. This means 
you need a system for making sure things get done. This doesn’t have to be 
anything fancy or complicated — a simple todo list will do — but simply 
trying to remember or writing yourself a note is not a system. 

One of the nice things about having a system is it actually makes you less 
stressed out. Most people just keep their todo list somewhere in the back of 
their head. As things pile up, they become harder and harder to keep track of, 
and you become more stressed out about getting them all done or forgetting 
about them. 

Simply writing them down on a list makes everything seem more manageable. 
You can see the things you have to do — really, there’s not quite as many 
important ones as you thought — and you can put them in order and get 



that nice burst of satisfaction that comes from crossing them off. 

Yes, it all sounds like silly, basic stuff, but it’s important. Just having a list with 
all the stuff you need to do — and taking it seriously, actually going down it 
and checking stuff off every single day — is the difference between being a 
black hole of action items and being someone who actually Gets Stuff Done. 


As a servant, it’s crucial you know your masters well. You need to know 
what they’re good at and what gives them trouble. You need to be able to tell 
when they’re feeling good and when they’re in a rut. And you need to have 
a safe enough relationship with them that they can be honest with you and 
come to you when they’re in trouble. This is not easy. (You have to be willing 
to hear bad news about yourself.) 

The most important piece is understanding what people are good at and 
what they like doing. A good first step is to just ask them, but often people 
are wrong or don’t know. So you try giving them different things, seeing how 
they do at them, and adjusting accordingly. 

But in addition to your team’s professional skills, it’s important to understand 
their personal goals. However much you may care about the work, at bottom 
it’s still a job. You need to understand why your team members took it. Was 
it because it seemed interesting? Because it seemed worthwhile? Because it 
would give them valuable experience and help them get a better job down 
the road? It’s important that you know, so you can make sure your tasks and 
expectations are in line with their goals. 


You want the best working for you. People who aren’t just good at their job, 
but people who are also good at your job. People you can trust to not just do 
something right but tell you that the way you suggested doing it was wrong. 
People you can rely on to get things done if you just stay out of their way. At 
least, that’s the ideal. In practice, it’s hard to find people like that and even 
when you do, they still need help. 



I have never found the traditional methods of hiring — resumes, interviews, 
quizzes — to be helpful at all. Instead, I look at two things: what someone has 
done and whether I enjoy spending time with them. The first shows not just 
their talent but also their ability to execute. If they haven’t made something 
interesting, whether as a side project or at a previous job, then they’re probably 
not worth hiring. It’s not that hard to sit down and accomplish something; 
be wary of people who haven’t. 

Similarly, you need to keep in mind that you’re not just hiring a robot — you’re 
hiring a flesh-and-blood human who you’re going to need to spend a lot of 
time with during the day. That means they need to be someone you not just 
get along with, but enjoy being around. A formal interview, with all its stress 
and structure and contrivance, is a pretty bad environment for seeing if you 
like someone. Instead, just go get coffee and chat. 


Everyone wants to work with their friends. After all, you have so much fun 
hanging out after work, why not hang out during work too? So they recruit 
their friends to work with them. (Or, even worse, they recruit their lovers.) 
But being friends is very different from being colleagues. All friends learn 
ways to adjust themselves to each other — which tones to use, which subjects 
to avoid, when to give each other space. 

These go out the window when you’re working together. You can’t just not 
say things because they’ll get your friend upset. So you say them, and they 
get upset, and you realize you have no way of dealing with each other when 
you’re like this. It makes working together difficult, to say the least. 

The situation is the same, but vastly worse, with couples. Plus, you’re really 
screwed when your relationship falls apart under the stress. 

If you do decide to work with people you’re close with, you need to find a 
way to put your other relationship “on hold” while you work together. Which 
means you both need to be strong enough to be able to blow up at each other 
at work and then go out for drinks like nothing ever happened. If you can’t do 
this (and few can), then either give up on the relationship or give up on the job. 



The most extreme form of this, of course, is that you need to be able to fire 
your friend. Just because you like them doesn’t mean they’ll automatically be 
a good employee. And, sadly, there’s really no way for you to know in advance. 
Bad employees are no less disastrous because they’re your friends. Which 
means that if you hire a friend, you need to be able to fire them. 


Conversely, don’t become close friends with the people you work with. You 
have to set some personal boundaries: you’re their manager, not their friend. 
Naturally, part of being a manager means that you have to talk to people about 
their personal problems and possibly even offer advice. After all, it’s your job 
to make your team effective and if personal problems are distracting from 
that, you are going to have to face someone’s personal problems. 

But be sure to keep these problems at arm’s length. Actually getting 
involved in someone’s personal life or otherwise establishing a close personal 
relationship them is asking for trouble. 


Your first job as a manager is to make sure everyone’s on the same page. The 
team needs to understand what they’re expected to do, why they’re doing it, 
and who else is involved (funding it, using it, counting on it). If you picked a 
good team (point 2a), they’ll hear this and find holes in your plan and catch 
things you hadn’t thought of. (Which is good! Together, you can fix it.) 

But real work can’t begin until everyone’s on board with the plan. 


You’re not managing a bunch of individual employees; you’re managing a 
team. You’re all trying to accomplish the same goal. It’s the manager’s job 
to make sure everyone’s comfortable with each other. (Hint: Those dumb 
break-the-ice games do not make people more comfortable.) And while 
there’s obviously a lot of feedback you need to give people one-on-one (never 
chew people out in front of a group), you should try to do a lot in front of 
the team as well. 



It’s easy to fall into a trap where you’re just giving feedback individually. 
The result is that everyone feels isolated, not knowing where their work fits 
in to the bigger picture. Providing opportunities for everyone to see what 
everyone else is up to is crucial to making your team actually feel like it’s a 
community, instead of just a group of your friends. (First law of friendship 
drift: Just because you like two people doesn’t mean they’ll automatically 
like each other.) 

It’s also a good opportunity to set a tone. You want people to treat each other 
like friends and colleagues, not backstabbing assholes or bickering siblings. 
As my friend Clay comments: 

I have a “no asshole rule”which is really simple: I really don’t want to 
work with assholes. So if you’re an asshole and you work on my team, 

I’m going to fire you. Now, if the whole team says “gosh, that’s awful. We 
want to work with as many assholes as we can!” then we have a simple 
solution. I’ll fire me! (FYI: The “No Asshole Rule” is a book. I thought 
it was actually a pretty good book as far as Business books go. As far as 
I’m concerned, anybody could stand to read 100 pages giving them the 
MBA Book cover they need to say to their boss: let’s get the assholes out 
of here.) 

But a community is about more than just tone, there’s process as well. You 
need to figure out how your team members work and how you can get them to 
work together. Some people like constant human feedback; others like locking 
themselves in a room for a couple hours and just getting something done. 
Everyone has their own habits and styles. Your job is to find an appropriate 
mix that makes everyone as productive they can be. 


First, break the plan up into parts. Make sure everybody understands the 

Second, find a team member who wants to do each part. The keyword here 
is wants — some things just have to get done, it’s true, but things will get 
done much better by people who want to do them. 

One of the weird facts of life is that for just about everything you hate doing, 



there is someone out there who loves doing it. (There are even people who get 
a real kick out of cleaning toilets.) You may not currently employ them and 
you may not be able to hire them, but the is the goal worth striving toward. 

It’s also important to realize that a lot of what makes a task attractive or 
unattractive is outside the task itself. Managing the company’s accounting 
books at first seems like a pretty uninteresting job. But when you realize it 
makes you indispensable and gives you authority over how all the money 
is spent, it suddenly seems a little more exciting. Use your knowledge from 
point 2 to structure tasks in a way that’s attractive to your team members. 


Another thing to keep in mind is that most people like variety in their work. 
It’s very tempting to think of someone as “the finance guy” and just give them 
all the finance-related tasks. But in any organization there’s lots of different 
kinds of things to do and a wide mix of people to do it. Many people will 
appreciate the opportunity to switch up the kinds of things they do. 

It’s tempting to think that this is inefficient, that by having one guy do all 
the finance tasks they’ll become an expert in it and the finance tasks will get 
done more effectively. And there’s definitely some truth in it. But one of the 
best ways to be inefficient is to make your team unhappy. If doing something 
new makes someone enjoy their job more, it’ll be well worth the cost in time 
of them having to learn how to do it. 

Even better, their fresh perspective might just help you make improvements 
you’d never thought of before. 


As the manager, it’s a continual temptation to keep important jobs for 
yourself. After all, they’re usually fun to do and doggone-it they’re important , 
you can’t risk them on somebody else! Resist the temptation. 

For one thing, taking jobs for yourself is one way of distracting yourself from 
having to do actual management (point 1). But more importantly, you’ll never 
be able to develop your team if you keep all the real responsibility for yourself. 



Sure, Jony may not be as good at meeting funders as you, but a lot of that’s 
because she’s never gotten a chance to practice. If it’s something she wants 
to do (point 2), take her along and give him a chance to learn. 


This is the bulk of what non-hierarchical management is about. You’ve 
got good people, they’ve got good responsibilities. Now it’s your job to do 
everything in your power to help them get them done. 

A good way to start is just by asking people what they need. Is their office 
too noisy? Did they get confused about something you said? Are they stuck 
on a particular problem? Are they overwhelmed with work? It’s your job to 
help them out: get them a quieter office, clarify things, find them advice or 
answers, shift some stuff off their plate. They shouldn’t be wasting time with 
things that annoy them; that’s your job. 

But you have to be proactive as well. People tend to suffer quietly, both 
because they don’t want to come whining to you and just because when you’re 
stuck in a rut all your attention is focused on the rut. A key part of being a 
manager is checking in with people, pointing out that they’re stuck in a rut, 
and gently helping them out. 


At any given time, there’s lots of stuff that needs to be done. Part of your job 
is helping people decide what to tackle first. You don’t want to be too didactic 
about it — people like choice and variety, they’re not always so happy when 
you just give them one instruction after another — but even that’s usually 
far preferable to being overwhelmed with stuff. 

The best prioritization relationship is a dialogue: “OK, what’s next?” someone 
asks. “Well, what about building the new sprocket management engine?” 
“Ugh, I’m too tired for that today.” “OK, how about cleaning the frobnitz?” 
“Bo-ring.” “Oh, I know! We need someone to document the doohickey.” 
“Ooh, perfect — thanks!” 




Procrastination is the crop blight of the office-work world. It affects just 
about everyone and it’s very hard to fight alone. The single best way to stop 
procrastination is to sit down with someone and come up with the next 
concrete step they have to take and then start doing it together. There’s 
something magical about having another person sit down with you and do 
something that can overcome procrastination’s natural resistance. And once 
you get someone started, momentum can often carry them through the rest 
of the day. 

Even if all you do is help people overcome procrastination, you will be well 
worth it. 


White-collar work is lonely. You sit at a desk, staring at a screen, poking 
at buttons. It’s easy to get lost and off-track and depressed. That’s why it’s 
important to check in and see how things are doing. Not only does it give 
you a chance to see how people are doing (point 5), it gives you a chance to 
see how things are coming and gently steer them back on course if they’ve 
drifted from what you’ve intended. 


Remember, your job isn’t to tell people how to do things; it’s to help them 
get it done. Sometimes this means helping them figure out how to do it, but 
in general you should assume that you work with smart people and they’ll 
be able to handle it themselves. Again, be a servant, not a boss. 

Studies consistently show that people are much happier and more productive 
when they have control over the way they work. Never take that away. 


As manager, people will often come to you to make decisions or resolve 
disputes. It’s very tempting, with people looking up at you for guidance, to 
want to give your sage advice. But the fact is, even if (or especially if) as a 



manager you’re held up on a pedestal, you probably know less about the 
question than anyone else on the team. 

The worst managers don’t just make decisions when people come to them, 
they parachute in and start dictating tiny details. The urge to do this can be 
overwhelming, but there are few things more disastrous to morale. If you 
really have to give input, couch it as such. And if people fight back, know 
when to step back and say “look, you’re the expert. I was just giving my two 
cents.” (Hint: It’s right after they start fighting back.) 

The best managers use these opportunities not to dictate an answer, but to 
have a Socratic dialogue to help figure out what the best answer is. Often 
when people are stuck on something, they really just need someone else to talk 
things over with, either for assistance or validation. Here’s your chance to help. 


Firing people is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do. People 
go to absurd lengths to try and make it easier (“we’ll just try him out for a 
month and see how it goes” is a common one) but they never really help. You 
just have to bite the bullet and let people go. It’s your job. If you can’t do it, 
find someone else. 

Firing people isn’t just about saving money, or petty things like that. It’s the 
difference between a great organization and a failure. Ineffective people drag 
everyone else down to their level. They make it so that you can’t take pride in 
what you’re doing, so that you dread going into work in the morning, so that 
you can’t rely on the other pieces of the project getting done. And assholes, 
no matter how talented they may be, are even worse. Conversely, there are few 
things more fun than working hard with a really nice, talented group of people. 

You are never going to be able to tell whether someone is going to work out 
in advance. Assholes are sometimes easy to spot, but people can have great 
resumes, solid references, a charming interview style, and still be total failures. 
And the worst part is, there will always be excuses for their failures. “I know, 
I know,” they’ll say, “it’s just that I’ve been really sick this week. I’ve been 
distracted with family things. I’ve been traveling. Look, I’m sorry. I promise 
I’ll do better this week.” I’ve said them all myself. 



If you’re not getting things done, you can always come up with excuses for 
why. Competent people get things done anyway. Ineffective ones let the excuses 
pile up. They’re not going to leave themselves. You have to pull the trigger. 


As the team’s manager, there will be many opportunities where people will 
want to give you credit. And getting credit is nice, it makes you feel good. 
So you start coming up with excuses for why you deserve it, even though you 
didn’t do any of the work. “Well, it was my vision,” you will say. “I was the 
one who made it all happen.” 

But think of all those talented people slaving away at desks. They were the 
ones who actually made it happen. Make sure they get the credit. And not 
in a facetious, “thanks to all the little people way”. No, you need to own up. 
You are the assistant. They did all the work. As Clay says, “A manager’s worst 
enemy is his or her own ego.” 


Spending your days doing grunt work for people who are smarter than 
you. Obsessing over their mood and personal problems. Turning down all 
opportunities to take credit or get attention so you can continue to work as 
a servant. Does this really sound like a job you want? 

Probably not. Few people are cut out for it. It’s really hard. It’s incredibly 
stressful. It’s not at all glamorous. But it’s vitally important. A team without 
a manager is doomed to be an ineffective team. So if you can’t do it, find 
somebody else. 

Thanks to Clay Johnson 1 and Emmett Shear 2 yir their comments on drafts 
of this essay. 

February 16, 2009 

1 . http: / /www. sunlight 





Paul Graham has recently argued for two points: first, that tech startups 
will continue to collect in Silicon Valley 1 . Second, that startups may represent 
a new economic phase 2 , replacing the corporate ladder of old 3 . Now he’s 
suggesting that these two effects combined might lead to a very local economic 
revolution 4 . 

The first point — that tech startups collect in Silicon Valley — is certainly 
true, just like car companies all tend to cluster in Detroit. This is because 
of a feedback effect set off by some random initial condition: Shockley 
Semiconductor was started in Silicon Valley, so when its employees left to 
start their own companies they did so there, and so on. Now everyone in the 
industry moves to Silicon Valley because that’s where everyone else is. 

This isn’t a new idea; it was a central topic in Paul Krugman’s research, for 
example, and even before that you can see similar ideas expressed by social 
theorists like Jane Jacobs. (For more information, see the Wikipedia article 
Business cluster 5 , Krugman’s Geography and Trade, and Jacobs’brilliant book 
The Economy of Cities .) Industries tend to cluster together. 

The second — that startups represent a new economic phase — may also 
be true. It’s a rather more extreme claim, but it would be pretty cool. 

But I don’t think it combines with the first to create a local revolution. It’s 
true, tech startups have generated a lot of wealth, but they’re far from the 
only kind of startup to do so. The amazing thing about the Internet is that it 
makes all sorts of startups possible. 

Previously, if you wanted to start a newspaper, you had to buy a building 
and hire a staff and get some printing presses and a delivery service and an 
ad sales team and access to the wire services. Now you just start a blog, read 
the wire services online, and link to the stories you like. 

Previously, if you wanted to sell a new kind of soap, you had to build 
warehouses and a distribution network and a shipping infrastructure and 



make deals with retail outlets. Now you have Amazon Fulfillment Services 6 
handle all the physical details and just advertise your product on the Web. 

And new startups are helping this process along all the time. One Y 
Combinator startup tries to make things easier for food producers, another 
helps you run an online magazine. More are surely close behind. 

It’s tempting to think that a soap company which only sold through the 
Internet would always be a small concern. But why should it be any different 
from Internet companies? Reddit was small when it started, but it quickly 
grew through word-of-mouth. Sure, we had some tough nights making things 
scale, but in the end we were able to ramp up to a site with millions of users. 

Similarly, I met some folks in Brooklyn who started a small salsa company 7 
in their apartment. At first they made the salsa in their kitchen and sold jars 
through their bedroom window. As business picked up, they got a bigger 
space and started selling more. Now they’re manufacturing in scale and you 
can find them at Whole Foods. This worked because New York City was a 
big enough audience that they had room to scale up. The Internet is big in 
exactly the same way. 

As the Internet is everywhere and everyone knows how to use it, why won’t 
we see online startups in every industry? And then why not all across the 
globe? It may make sense for tech startups to move to Silicon Valley, but does it 
really make sense for soap startups? For food startups? No, it seems more likely 
that each industry will cluster the way tech companies and car companies have. 

Silicon Valley may have had the first wave, but the next one belongs to the 

April 15, 2009 

1 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ startuphubs . html 

2 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/highres . html 

3 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ ladder . html 

4 . http : / /www . paulgraham . com/ revolution . html 

5 . 

6 . http : / /www . amazonservices . com/ content/ fulfillment-by-amazon . htm 





I was going through my weblog archives the other day and found an early 
post I’d written nme years ago (in yet another piece of blogging software I’d 
written myself...). But what was even more shocking than the notion that 
I’d been blogging for over a decade was that my web design back then was 
better than it was today. 

This really kept nagging at me, so I took a couple hours tonight to do a 
redesign. I still have very little in the way of positive artistic talent (see article 
“Two Conceptions of Taste”), so it’s nothing impressive, but I do hope that 
it will keep me from recoiling in horror from my own weblog. My apologies 
to everyone I borrowed design features from. 

Feel free to use this thread to comment on the redesign. 

September 23, 2009 



I think it’s time to remind people that D. J. Bernstein is the greatest 
programmer in the history of the world. 

First, look only at the objective facts, djb has written two major pieces of 
system software: a mail server and a DNS server. Both are run by millions 
of Internet domains. They accomplish all sorts of complicated functions, 
work under incredibly high loads, and confront no end of unusual situations. 
And they both run pretty much exactly has Bernstein first wrote them. One 
bug — one bug! — was found in qmail. A second bug was recently found in 
djbdns, but you can get a sense of how important it is by the fact that it took 
people nearly a decade to find it. 

No other programmer has this kind of track record. Donald Knuth 
probably comes closest, but his diary about writing TeX (printed in Literate 
Programming) shows how he kept finding bugs for years and never expected 
to be finished, only to get closer and closer (thus the odd version numbering 
scheme). Not only does no one else have djb’s track record, no one else even 
comes close. 

But far more important are the subjective factors, djb’s programs are some 
of the greatest works of beauty to be comprehended by the human mind. As 
with great art, the outline of the code is somehow visually pleasing — there is 
balance and rhythm and meter that rivals even the best typography. As with 
great poetry, every character counts — every single one is there because it 
needs to be. But these programs are not just for being seen or read — like a 
graceful dancer, they move! And not just as a single dancer either, but a whole 
choreographed number — processes splitting and moving and recombining 
at great speeds, around and around again. 

But, unlike a dance, this movement has a purpose. They accomplish things 
that need accomplishing — they find your websites, they ferry your email 
from place to place. In the most fantastic movies, the routing and sorting of 
the post office is imagined as a giant endless choreographed dance number. 



(Imagine, perhaps, “The Office” from Brazil.) But this is no one-time fantasy, 
this is how your email gets sorted every day. 

And the dance is not just there to please human eyes — it is a dance with a 
purpose. Each of its inner mechanisms is perfectly crafted, using the fewest 
number of moving parts, accomplishing its task with the most minimal 
energy. The way jobs are divided and assigned is nothing short of brilliant. 
The brilliance is not merely linguistic, although it is that too, but contains a 
kind of elegant mathematical effectiveness, backed by a stream of numbers 
and equations that show, through pure reason alone, that the movements are 
provably perfect, a better solution is guaranteed not to exist. 

But even all this does not capture his software’s incredible beauty. For 
djb’s programs are not great machines to be admired from a distance, vast 
powerhouses of elegant accomplishment. They are also tools meant to be used 
by man, perfectly fitted to one’s hand. Like a great piece of industrial design, 
they bring joy to the user every time they are used. 

What other field combines all these arts? Language, math, art, design, 
function. Programming is clearly in a class of its own. And, when it comes to 
programmers, who even competes with djb? Who else has worked to realize 
these amazing possibilities? Who else even knows they are there? 

Oddly, there are many people who profess to hate djb. Some of this is just 
the general distaste of genius: djb clearly has a forceful, uncompromising 
vision, which many misinterpret as arrogance and rudeness. And some of it 
is the practical man’s disregard for great design: djb’s programs do not work 
like most programs, for the simple reason that the way most programs work 
is wrong. But the animosity goes much deeper than that. I do not profess 
to understand it, but I do honestly suspect at some level it’s people without 
taste angry and frustrated at the plaudits showered on what they cannot see. 
Great art always generates its share of mocking detractors. 

This is not to say that djb’s work is perfect. There are the bugs, as mentioned 
before, and the log files, which are nothing if not inelegant, and no doubt djb 
would make numerous changes were he to write the software again today. 
But who else is even trying? Who else even knows this is possible? I did not 
realize what great art in software could be until I read djb. And now I feel 



dirty reading anything else. 

October 19, 2009 

1 . 




There are three questions you have when you’re hiring a programmer (or 
anyone, for that matter): Are they smart? Can they get stuff done? Can you 
work with them? Someone who’s smart but doesn’t get stuff done should be 
your friend, not your employee. You can talk your problems over with them 
while they procrastinate on their actual job. Someone who gets stuff done 
but isn’t smart is inefficient: non-smart people get stuff done by doing it the 
hard way and working with them is slow and frustrating. Someone you can’t 
work with, you can’t work with. 

The traditional programmer hiring process consists of: a) reading a resume, b) 
asking some hard questions on the phone, and c) giving them a programming 
problem in person. I think this is a terrible system for hiring people. You learn 
very little from a resume and people get real nervous when you ask them 
tough questions in an interview. Programming isn’t typically a job done under 
pressure, so seeing how people perform when nervous is pretty useless. And 
the interview questions usually asked seem chosen just to be cruel. I think 
I’m a pretty good programmer, but I’ve never passed one of these interviews 
and I doubt I ever could. 

So when I hire people, I just try to answer the three questions. To find 
out if they can get stuff done, I just ask what they’ve done. If someone can 
actually get stuff done they should have done so by now. It’s hard to be a good 
programmer without some previous experience and these days anyone can get 
some experience by starting or contributing to a free software project. So I just 
request a code sample and a demo and see whether it looks good. You learn an 
enormous amount really quickly, because you’re not watching them answer a 
contrived interview question, you’re seeing their actual production code. Is it 
concise? clear? elegant? usable? Is it something you’d want in your product? 

To find out whether someone’s smart, I just have a casual conversation with 
them. I do everything I can to take off any pressure off: I meet at a cafe, I make 
it clear it’s not an interview, I do my best to be casual and friendly. Under no 
circumstances do I ask them any standard “interview questions” — I just chat 



with them like I would with someone I met at a party. (If you ask people at 
parties to name their greatest strengths and weaknesses or to estimate the 
number of piano tuners in Chicago, you’ve got bigger problems.) I think it’s 
pretty easy to tell whether someone’s smart in casual conversation. I constantly 
make judgments about whether people I meet are smart, just like I constantly 
make judgments about whether people I see are attractive. 

But if I had to write down what it is that makes someone seem smart, I’d 
emphasize three things. First, do they know stuff? Ask them what they’ve 
been thinking about and probe them about it. Do they seem to understand 
it in detail? Can they explain it clearly? (Clear explanations are a sign of 
genuine understanding.) Do they know stuff about the subject that you don’t? 

Second, are they curious? Do they reciprocate by asking questions about 
you? Are they genuinely interested or just being polite? Do they ask follow- 
up questions about what you’re saying? Do their questions make you think? 

Third, do they learn? At some point in the conversation, you’ll probably be 
explaining something to them. Do they actually understand it or do they just 
nod and smile? There are people who know stuff about some small area but 
aren’t curious about others. And there are people who are curious but don’t 
learn, they ask lots of questions but don’t really listen. You want someone 
who does all three. 

Finally, I figure out whether I can work with someone just by hanging out 
with them for a bit. Many brilliant people can seem delightful in a one-hour 
conversation, but their eccentricities become grating after a couple hours. So 
after you’re done chatting, invite them along for a meal with the rest of the 
team or a game at the office. Again, keep things as casual as possible. The 
point is just to see whether they get on your nerves. 

If all that looks good and I’m ready to hire someone, there’s a final sanity 
check to make sure I haven’t been fooled somehow: I ask them to do part of 
the job. Usually this means picking some fairly separable piece we need and 
asking them to write it. (If you really insist on seeing someone working under 
pressure, give them a deadline.) If necessary, you can offer to pay them for 
the work, but I find most programmers don’t mind being given a small task 
like this as long as they can open source the work when they’re done. This 



test doesn’t work on its own, but if someone’s passed the first three parts, it 
should be enough to prove they didn’t trick you, they can actually do the work. 

(I’ve known some people who say “OK, well why don’t we try hiring you for 
a month and see how it goes.” This doesn’t seem to work. If you can’t make 
up your mind after a small project you also can’t make it up after a month 
and you end up hiring people who aren’t good enough. Better to just say no 
and err on the side of getting better people.) 

I’m fairly happy with this method. When I’ve skipped parts, I’ve ended up 
with bad hires who eventually had to be let go. But when I’ve followed it, 
I’ve ended up with people I like so much so that I actually feel bad I don’t 
get to work with them anymore. I’m amazed that so many companies use 
such silly hiring methods instead. 

November 29, 2009 




When should you buy ads? Let’s assume your goal is for people to click 
on the ads and give you money. (Reasons this may not be true: persuasion, 
brand-building, budget-maximizing.) The return from a block of ads is thus 
revenue — marginal_costs — ad_costs. Ads are an investment like any other; 
you keep buying them until your return on investment (revenue — marginal_ 
costs / ad_costs) equals your cost of capital (usually the interest rate). 

For simplicity, we’ll assume your marginal cost is zero. (My marginal cost 
is almost always zero, so this doesn’t strike me as too unrealistic.) So how 
do you estimate revenue? You can track how much money people who click 
on your ad give you, but this has two flaws. First, customers often give you 
more money over time. Maybe they buy level one of your video game when 
they click on the ad, but then they may buy levels two and three the next day 
after they beat level one. The future is always in the future, so revenue-per- 
user numbers may be too small. 

Second, they might have given you money anyway. Your video game ads 
probably run on video game review sites, where readers might buy your 
game just from the review, even if you hadn’t bought an ad. So your revenue 
numbers may be too big. 

But these problems aren’t so serious. In the first case, the worst that happens is 
you don’t buy as many ads as you should. In the second, you don’t actually lose 
money, it’s just that some extra profit you could have kept has gone into ads. 

Let’s turn to the ad seller. They probably want to maximize how much they 
charge per ad impression (CPM). (Reasons this may not be true: unseemly 
ads.) A good way to do this is to hold an auction. It’s impractical to have 
everyone bid live, so Google auctions work like eBay auctions: you enter 
the maximum you’re willing to pay and get charged just enough to beat the 
other bidders. (One can think of this as a computer-simulated auction where 
everyone keeps bidding up the price by pennies until they hit the maximum 
they’re willing to spend.) 



But what are you bidding on? Ad sellers want to maximize revenue per 
impression, but ad buyers want to maximize profit per expense. In an ideal 
world, ad sellers auction off impressions (this is what Google Ad Manager 
does) while ad buyers bid per dollar of profit (entering their cost of capital). 

Determining how much profit you make from an ad is hard. Can we just 
trust you? Let’s say you make $2 in profit per 1000 impressions and everyone 
else makes $1. Now you can lie and say you make $1 in profit and then pay 
twice as much per profit-dollar.Nowyoupay the same amount as before, but 
you win all the profit-dollar auctions. Now that’s not wrong — you’re clearly 
making more money than the other bidders, so you should win — but your 
bid isn’t cost-per-profit anymore, it’s cost-per-impression. 

What if you paid based on revenue? Verifying revenue is difficult, but Google 
could do it if everyone was using Google Checkout. (If you sent some of 
your users to a non-Google Checkout system, Google could catch you and 
fine you.) Google offers nicer ads to Checkout users, but they still don’t have 
much market share, making this system impractical at present. 

Some search engines apparently had cost-per-action (CPA) auctions, where 
you paid based on how many people actually bought things. I have no idea 
how they made that work, since lying about how many people took an action 
seems really profitable and easy. Maybe that’s why no one does this anymore. 

That just leaves cost-per-click (CPC). Cost-per-click seems ideal, since it’s 
verifiable by both the ad seller (who uses a redirect link to track clicks) and 
the ad buyer (who sees the users show up on their page). It’s a nice half-way 
point between buyer and seller. 

So the ad seller holds an auction for CPC and multiplies CPC by click- thru- 
rate (CTR) to calculate CPM. They shows the highest CPM ads, charging 
each the bidder below them’s CPC, times their relative CTRs. (In reality, 
Google doesn’t just use CTR; they also factor in the relevance of the ad and 
the quality of the page it goes to.) And, voila: we’ve derived the basics of an 
online ad system. 

This works out great for the ad seller — they maximize CPM, just like they 
wanted — but the ad buyer is still stuck converting their ROI into CPC. The 



ad buyer, recall, wants to increase their spending on ads (now determined to 
be CPC) until their return on investment equals their cost of capital. 

It seems like this should be pretty easy, and indeed Google does provide tools 
to calculate ROI, but apparently not to optimize it. What they do provide 
is a tool to optimize your cost-per-action. Does anyone know why this is? 

It seems like an automatic ROI optimizer would lead many people to spend 
more money on ads. It’s hard to believe Google is leaving all that money on 
the table. 

But Google does intelligently optimize the ads themselves. The variance 
in click-thru rates between different ads is huge — it’s not uncommon to 
see two very similar ads, but one gets ten times as many clicks as the others. 
Google lets you put in as many ads as you like and automatically rotates them, 
showing ads with better CTRs more often. 

So far we’ve just had a single ad seller. In the real world, lots of people want 
to sell ads and lots of people want to buy them. How do you match them up? 

One option is make the buyer choose. This is how Google Search works: 
Google holds an auction for each search query and buyers pick which ones 
they want to compete in. Another is to group related websites together and 
run ads evenly across all of them. This is how most smaller ad networks work. 
And then there’s AdSense. AdSense scans a page for relevant keywords, then 
runs the Google Search ads that won auctions for those keywords. 

Google also knows a lot about ad viewers. By tracking what web pages you 
visit, they know what topics you’re interested in. I’m apparently interested in 
Unix, the environment, elections, government, and social science, so Google 
prefers to show ads on those subjects to me. 

But there’s another way to think about ad matching: as a giant optimization 
problem. Which combinations of user, ad placement, and advertisement 
optimize click-thru rates (or, ultimately, ROI)? 

For each of these, there are lots of variables. For each user, you know their 
history, geographical location, computer (browser, operating system, screen 



size), ISP, etc. For each ad placement, you know time of day, hosting website, 
page content, etc. And for each ad, there are numerous possible variations in 
phrasing and design that can be tested, as mentioned before. 

The possible combinations are infinite. You can’t test all of them, so you need 
to come up with ones that are plausible. You can look at which combinations 
worked in the past: has this ad done significantly better in some cities than 
others, or at some times than others? And you can look for patterns across 
ads: do ads that do well on CNN also do well on MSNBC? These hypotheses 
can then be tested and, if they work, you start running ads more there. 

Netflix claims they’ve made millions from slight improvements in their 
movie recommendations. 1 When they offered a prize for more, researchers 
found thousands of tiny patterns and came up with all sorts of innovative 
algorithms to try to get an edge. After 32 months, researchers doubled the 
algorithm’s effectiveness. 

Imagine how much more is at stake for Google. Last year, they received 
$21 billion in ad revenue, of which 60% was apparently profit. Even tiny 
improvements would be worth the highest salaries — a 0.004% improvement 
would make $500,000. Doubling it would create unspeakable wealth. 

Yet Google has no contest for improving ad click-thru rates. Indeed, press 
reports suggest they don’t even have an internal team working on it. The 
AdWords user-interface (recently redesigned from jaw-droppingly wretched 
to just wretched) would seem to suggest they don’t do this kind of optimization 
at all. Their blog asks people to optimize things manually. No doubt there are 
some things humans (even ad purchase reps) can do better than computers, 
but surely there’s a lot more they can do together — with humans giving the 
machine additional hints and hypotheses to test. But there doesn’t seem to 
be anything like that. 

It’s hard to believe this is true. It’s hard to believe this can last. 

Google’s chief economist claims that Google’s sewn up the ad market by 
being better than everyone else. What if you made an ad network that was 
better than Google? 



Right now Google takes a 20% cut of every auction price. What if you 
were willing to take just 10%? You could give ad sellers a slightly higher 
CPM — they’d gladly run your ads when they paid more and Google’s the 
rest of the time. Then you can offer ad buyers a slightly lower CPC. As long 
as the money people made was more than the cost of setting things up, they’d 
switch. I’m actually not sure why this hasn’t happened. 

Now imagine that you were a genius CS student who could come up with 
a better ad optimization algorithm. Your system would have a higher overall 
CTR, since it presented users with better ads. This means that, again, you 
can pay higher CPMs (since more people click per impression). And you can 
redirect some of the money you would spend on higher CPMs into lower 
CPCs, to attract advertisers. 

But to develop the algorithms and do the optimization you need the data. 
Lots of it — lots of users, lots of advertisers, lots of ad spots. No startup 
will ever have that; it’s only left to Google (or whichever giant eventually 
replaces them). 

I’m not normally one to be too concerned about improving Google’s bottom 
line (they seem to be doing alright), but as an ad buyer I’m frustrated I have to 
do this work myself. I’d rather solve the problem for everyone. And if Google 
wants to pay me for that, I certainly wouldn’t mind. 

It’s weird that Netflix is so much more interested in this than, say, Amazon. 
Amazon makes money on every sale, whereas Netflix loses money every time 
they send a DVD out. Netflix claims they make up for this in higher customer 
retention rates, but why didn’t Amazon think of this first? 

November 3, 2009 

1. It's weird that Netflix is so much more interested in this than, say, 
Amazon. Amazon makes money on every sale, whereas Netflix loses money 
every time they send a DVD out. Netflix claims they make up for this 
in higher customer retention rates, but why didn't Amazon think of 
this first? 




I’m looking for a researcher to work with on a couple projects. The research 
will mostly be into questions of United States government policy and the 
relevant factual basis. For example, you might be asked to look up things 
about cap-and-trade legislation and the evidence for anthropogenic global 
warming. You can do it part-time. You can work from anywhere. I think 
the work will be interesting and I’ll be doing it too. I think the work will be 
important, which is why I’m doing it. 

The requirements are: 

• generally lefty politics 

• the ability to figure out the answers to complicated and politically 
controversial questions and find primary sources supporting those 

• the ability to write clear summaries of those answers 

The ideal person is probably someone who’s contributed to Wikipedia, but 
that’s not a requirement. 

If you’re interested, send a paragraph you wrote explaining or summarizing 
something to me with “researcher” in the subject. If you have ideas for how to 
find people like this, post them in the comments. (Or email them. Whatever.) 
I’ll probably end up hiring a bunch of researchers so the more people and 
ideas the better. 

December 27, 2009 




Today’s iPad introduction has to be about the most depressing Apple product 
launch I’ve ever watched. As has been noted, Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field 
only works when he believes in what he’s selling and he didn’t seem to really 
believe in this. The audience must have further added to the disappointment, 
expecting a revolutionary product and only getting an oversized iPhone (iPod 
touch, actually). 

That’s not to say the iPad won’t sell, or that I don’t want one. The scariest 
thing is that I think it probably will. It’s clear that Apple plans for the iPhone 
OS to be the future of its product line. And that’s scary because the iPhone 
OS is designed for Apple’s total control. 

A lot of people have argued that requiring Apple to approve every application 
for the iPhone OS is some kind of “mistake”, something they’ll remedy as soon 
as they realize how bad things have gotten. But recent events — Phil Schiller’s 
personal interventions, comments on their call to analysts, etc. — have made 
it clear it’s not a mistake at all. It’s their plan. 

The iPad is their attempt to extend this total control to what’s traditionally 
been thought of as the computer space. This is just the first step, but it’s not 
hard to imagine Apple doing their best to phase out the Macintosh in the 
next decade, just as they phased out OS 9. In their ideal world, all computing 
will be done on the iPhone OS. 

And the iPhone OS will only run software that they specifically approve. 
No Flash or other alternate runtimes, no one-off apps or open source 
customizations. Just total control by Apple. It’s a frightening future. 

I don’t know why they’re doing it. It’s hard to see how it makes them more 
money. (Curating all those apps must be expensive, not to mention the lost 
sales from the unapproved ones.) I can only presume it’s a result of Jobs’ 
megalomaniacal need for control — not only does the hardware have to be 
flawless, the software must be too. And the only way to ensure that is to have 



Apple approve every inch of it. 

I love Apple products. I’m a huge Apple fan. I’d buy an iPad right now if 
I could. But, for the first time, I’ve got a real sinking feeling in my stomach. 

January 27, 2010 

1 . 




A year or two ago, I came up with a brilliant scheme for handling my email. 
The problem, I decided, was that there was just too much of it. Spam was 
mixed in with notes from friends along with important things from work and 
todo items I’d written to myself. What I needed to do was go thru and sort 
it — pick out the really important stuff to handle right away and move the 
junk to the bottom. So I wrote a little program that would let me go through 
and sort my email into neat little folders ordered by priority. 

Well, here’s what happened: I sorted all my email, and then I didn’t answer 
any of it. I told myself that I shouldn’t answer the unimportant stuff until 
the important stuff was taken care of, then when I looked at the important 
stuff it seemed hard, so I decided to go read some blogs first. To this day, all 
those important emails are just sitting there. 

Recently, I came up with a really dumb system for handling my email: just 
do it. I’d start at the top of my inbox, answer the most recent email, and 
move on to the next one. No excuses. No matter what the email at the top 
was — no matter how difficult or awkward or unimportant, I had to answer 
it. I couldn’t move on to another email and come back to it later. I had to 
answer the most recent email, no matter what it was. 

By the end of the day, I’d answered a month’s worth of email. 

We procrastinate because we are afraid. We’re afraid it’s too much work 
and that it will drain us. We’re afraid we’ll screw it up and get in trouble. 
We’re afraid we don’t know how to do it. We’re afraid because, well, we’ve 
been putting it off forever and every time we put it off it seems a little more 
fearsome in our minds. That’s why not putting things off is so liberating. We’re 
forced to confront our fears, not let them grow bigger by repeatedly running 
away. And when we confront them, we find they’re not so scary after all. 

This doesn’t just apply to email, of course — it works for any todo list. But 
only if you say no to reordering, prioritizing, estimating deadlines, and doing 



the most important things first. Forget all that. Do it now. 

January 8 , 2010 





Apparently a lot of people have gotten the mistaken impression from my 
blog that I sit around and think about abstract philosophy all day. Well, I 
guess I do kind of do that, but my day job is actually much more exciting. I’m 
a cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee 1 and I spend 
my days experimenting with new ways to get progressive policies enacted 
and progressive politicians elected. 

Like a lot of people, I grew up feeling frustrated with the world — extremes 
of wealth and poverty, insane and bloody wars, outdated intellectual monopoly 
laws, big corporations run amok. But I had no idea what to do about it. Writing 
just felt like preaching to the choir, marching in the streets felt like the protest 
of the powerless, working with people on the ground just didn’t seem to scale. 

But when my friend Larry Lessig decided to run for Congress, I begun to 
see that there was something I could do. During the short-lived campaign, 
we were besieged with offers of help from consultants, software companies, 
and services firms. Their technology was invariably outdated and incompetent 
(the leading tools are built on SQL Server), uncoordinated and poorly- 
designed. The advice they gave was horrendous, their incompetence bordered 
on sabotage, and the prices they charged would bankrupt us. 

We started the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in January 2009 
with the notion that we could fix all that. We would help filter the good 
consultants from the bad, write up best practices and conduct experiments 
to learn what works. Along the way, we got pulled into issue campaigns as 
well — at first going after CNBC for their terrible coverage of the economic 
crisis 2 , then spending most of the last year getting Congress to pass a public 
option in the health care bill 3 . Along the way, we’ve gotten over 400,000 
members and raised over a million dollars for our various tactics. Not bad 
for our first year! 

But now, as the 2010 campaigns ramp up, we’re getting back to our original 
mission. We’ve been working with campaigns to help them find talented staff, 



competent consultants, and money-saving techniques. But we also need some 
talented programmers to build the next generation of campaign tools. We’ve 
got some really exciting ideas, but we need your help. 

So here’s the ask: Want to work with me on building some amazing 
tools for some amazing campaigns? If so, just send me an email at aaron@ or just fill out this form. 

Then, tell your friends. Your country needs you. 

April 7, 2010 







Management is art of getting people who work for you to accomplish things. 
It’s a subtle and fascinating art, the applied version of my great intellectual 
love, sociology. It’s usually practiced badly, but even when done badly it can 
accomplish incredible things. One person can only do so much on their 
own — their time, their powers, their creativity are all limited. But even an 
incompetent manager, who uses only a fraction of the powers of her employees, 
is capable of accomplishing tasks far beyond the range of any single person. 

Organizing is the art of getting people who don’t work for you to accomplish 
things. Many of the underlying concepts are the same but the execution is 
vastly more difficult. You don’t really get to pick your people. The people you 
get don’t simply follow instructions, they must be persuaded and cajoled and 
made to understand your vision. But when it works, they accomplish great 
things you never would have allowed them to try. 

Organizing has many forms. The obvious one is where you take a batch 
of volunteers and try to shape them into a manageable force. The best are 
selected, developed, promoted, and taught to do the same. It is like traditional 
management in reverse: instead of starting with the top of a hierarchy and 
building down through hiring, you start with a bunch of people at the bottom 
and try to build them up through training and promotion. 

But organizing also means finding other leaders, people embedded in 
management structures (organizations) of their own, and using them toward 
a common goal. Sometimes this means explicit direction of their efforts, as 
in a coalition, where you get the heads of various groups to all work on a 
common project, or sometimes it’s simply having them lend their name or 
knowledge to the cause. A great organizer of this sort develops rich networks 
they can quickly call upon in need. (Journalists can be good organizers in 
this sense, developing connections with sources and experts they can leverage 
to create a story.) 

Organizing is most prevalent in my own field of politics, where the work 



I tend to do is often called “online organizing. ’’This term usually means the 
kind of stuff you see on the MoveOn mailing list: emails asking you to call 
your senator, host a house party, attend a vigil — but mostly tell your friends 
and give us money. Since I got into this business, cranky old-timers have been 
yelling at me that organizing people over the Internet is impossible, that you 
have to organize people face-to-face. This struck me as a ridiculous claim 
(and still does), but I think I now see the truth these critics are reacting to. 

Online organizing is a huge misnomer. Sending emails to millions isn’t 
organizing, any more than writing company wide memos is managing. It 
does not teach people new skills or persuade them of a larger vision or get 
them to continue the work themselves. It takes people where they are and 
gives them small things they can do from there. 

Mobilizing can be done thru any medium. The folks who knock on your 
door to ask for your vote (or donation) are face-to-face mobilizers. You can 
do the same by telephone or television (call now to contribute!). It is, however, 
a one-way relationship. You are simply a number on a list. 

But this doesn’t mean online organizing is impossible, just that it isn’t often 
done. Obviously it’s much harder than mere mobilization — and much more 
complicated — but it’s much more rewarding as well. It is what makes for a 
successful open source project, or a thriving online community. The problem 
is one of scale — and that’s true when it’s done through any medium. IAF 
and ACORN never had five million members. Still, this seems to be the 
genuinely important question: whether the scaling power of the Internet 
allows for a revolution in the scale of real organizing. I don’t know, but the 
first step toward answering it is being clear about what it means. 

June 29, 2010 




Imagine someone put a document up at 
volumes /l.html that a) some people want to read and b) some people want 
to keep you from reading. 


On the current Web, the way you request such a document is like this: 

1. You ask one of your pre-programmed root servers who is in charge of 

2. They respond with VeriSign, so you ask VeriSign who is in charge of 

3. They respond with Acme ISP, so you ask ACME ISP where to find 

4. It responds with an IP address, so you request the page from that IP 

The censors can ask VeriSign to give them control of, 
they can try to shut down Acme ISP, they can try to prevent you from getting 
hosting, and they can try to shut down your IP All of these have been used 
recently, with some success. You need a backup plan. 

Let’s imagine we want this URL to resolve in an uncensorable way. How 
would we do it? 


First we would have a certificate authority (CA) which would sign statements 
of the form: “As of [DATE] , [DOMAIN NAME] is owned by the holder of 
[PUBLIC KEY].” (Let’s call this a certificate .) Conveniently, there’s already 
a whole industry of trusted businesses that make these statements — they’re 
called SSL certificates. 

The problem is that CAs are presumably just as subject to attack as the 



registrars (in fact, in some cases they are the registrars!). One possibility is 
to set up a certificate authority that will not sign such statements for people 
attempting to engage in censorship. It seems probable that such a policy 
would be protected by the First Amendment in the US. However, “people 
engaging in censorship” is a somewhat subjective notion. Also, it’s always 
possible a court could order the certificate authority to turn over the private 
signing key (or the key could be obtained in some other way). 

Another possibility is some kind of “rollback UI”. If you know vaguely 
when the censorship attempts started, you can only trust certifications made 
before that date. This is a somewhat difficult feature to implement in a way 
that makes sense to users, though. The best case scenario is one in which the 
user can clearly distinguish between a censored and uncensored page. In that 
case, if the page appears censored they can hit a “go back a month” button 
and the system will only trust certifications made more than a month prior 
to the certification it’s currently using. The user can hit this button repeatedly 
until they get an uncensored version of the page. 


Next the owner of the website will need to sign statements of the form “The 
content of [URL] had the hash [HASH] on [DATE].” (Let’s call this an 
authenticator.) Now given a page, a corresponding valid authenticator, and a 
corresponding valid certificate (call this trio an authentic page), browsers can 
safely display a page even if it can’t access the actual web server. The digital 
signatures work together to prove that the page is what the website owner 
wanted to publish. If a browser gets back multiple authentic pages, it can 
display the latest one (modulo the effects of the “go back a month” button). 


Set up a series of domain-to-certificate servers. These servers take a domain 
names (e.g. and returns back any certificates for it. 
Certificates can be obtained by crawling the Web or by being submitted by 
website owners or by being submitted by the CAs themselves. 

Set up a series of URL-to-hash servers. These servers take a URL and return 
back any valid authenticators for that URL. Authenticators are very small, so 



each URL-to-hash server can probably store all of them. If spam becomes a 
problem, a little bit of hashcash could be required for storage. Website owners 
submit their authenticators to the URL-to-hash servers. 

Set up a series of hash-to-URL servers. These servers take a hash and return 
a series of URLs which can be dereferenced in the normal way to obtain a file 
with that hash. People can submit hash-to-URL mappings to these servers 
and they can attempt to automatically verify them by downloading the file 
and seeing if the hash matches. 1,2 Again, these mappings are very small so 
each server can probably store all of them. 3 

Then there are a series of servers that host controversial files. Perhaps they 
saved a copy before the site was censored, perhaps they received it thru some 
out-of-band channel 4 . However they got it, they put them up on their website 
and then submit the URL to the hash-to-URL servers. Meanwhile, the site 
publisher submits an authenticator to the URL-to-hash servers. 

Now, if a browser cannot obtain the pentagonpapers page through normal 
means it can: 

1. Ask each domain-to-cetificate server it knows for certificates for 
pentagonpapers . com 

2. Ask each URL-to-hash server it knows for authenticators for the URL 

3. Ask each hash-to-URL server it knows for alternative URLs 

4. Download from the alternative URLs 5 

This can be implemented through a browser plugin that you click when 
a page appears to be unavailable. If it takes off, maybe it can be built in to 
browsers. (While I’ve been assuming the worst-case-scenario of censorship 
here, the system would be equally useful for sites that are just down because 
their servers couldn’t handle the load or some other innocent failure.) 

This system should work unless our adversary can censor every well-known 
CA, every well-known URL-to-hash server, every well-known hash-to-URL 
server, or every alternative URL. 




We can help ensure this by operating at least one of each as a Tor hidden 
service. Because the operator of the service is anonymous, they are immune 
to legal threats. 6 If the user doesn’t have Tor, they can access them through 

Similarly, if you know your document is going to get censored, you can skip 
steps 1 and 2. Instead of distributing a URL which is 
going to go down, you can just distribute the hash. For users whose browsers 
don’t support this system, you can embed the hash in a URL like: 
where is a hash-to-URL server that redirects you to a valid URL. 

And, of course, if you somehow have access to a working P2P system, you 
can just it to obtain authentic pages. 


What’s nice about this system is that it gets you censorship resistance without 
introducing anything wildly new. There are already certificate authorities. 
There are already hash-to-URL servers. There are already mirrors. There’s 
already Tor. (There’s already tor2web.) The only really new thing specific to 
censorship resistance is URL-to-hash servers of the form I described, but 
they’re very simple and hopefully uncontroversial. 

There is some work to be done stitching all of these together and improving 
the UI, but unlike with some other censorship-resistance systems, there’s 
nothing you can point to as having no good purpose except for helping bad 
guys. It’s all pretty basic and generally useful stuff, just put together in a new 

If you’re interested in helping build something like this, please send me 
an email. 

1. Any server will have finite bandwidth, so an attacker could try 
to fool the hash-to-URL server by submitting a URL which when 
dereferenced never stops sending the data. The hash-to-URL 



servers should stop after a certain limit and mark the URL as 
unverified due to max file size. If the server ever obtains a 
file whose size is under the limit with that hash, it can toss 
all such URLs. 

2. URLs can go out of date so perhaps upon receiving sufficient 
complaints about a URL being "bad" , the server should attempt 
to reverify. Again, hashcash can be used throughout to avoid 

3. A possible protocol for the above two servers is provided in 
RFC 2169. 

4. I have ideas on how to automate this, naturally, but this 
essay is already far too long. 

5. Optional bonus: Use HTTP Range headers to download 1/n of the 
file from each of the n URLs. There are some circumstances 
where this could speed things up. Or maybe it's just annoying. 

6. This moves the censorship weak link to the distribution of 
introduction points to hidden services. 7 But instead of being 
published by a DHT, introduction points can be distributed 
through a flood protocol 8 . Or maybe the DHT can be modified so 
that there's no obvious censorship point? 

7. The introduction points themselves can't be censored because 
they don't know who they're talking to. (I think they do in 
the current implementation of Tor, but this doesn't seem 
necessary. The hidden service can generate a new keypair 
for each introduction point and send the public key to the 
introduction point and to Alice.) 

8. Is this too chatty? Probably. But remember, it's a last-case 
resort in some kind of insane police-state world where every 
country prevents people from running servers that give out the 
IP addresses of other servers that let you talk to a third 
server which will give you illegal content. 

December 21, 2010 





When using computers, we like to refer to things with names. For example, 
this website is known as “”. You can type that into your 
browser and read these words. There are three big properties we might want 
from such names: 

1. secure: that when you type the name in you actually get my website 
and not the website of an imposter 

2. decentralized: that no central authority controls all the names 

3. human-readable: that the name is something you can actually 
remember instead of some long string of randomness 

In a classic paper, my friend Zooko argued that you can get at most two of 
these properties at any one time. 

Recently, DN S legend Dan Kaminsky used this to argue that since electronic 
cash was pretty much the same as naming, Zooko ’s triangle applied to it as 
well. He used this to argue that BitCoin, the secure, decentralized, human- 
meaningful electronic cash system was impossible. I have my problems with 
BitCoin, but it’s manifestly not impossible, so I just assumed Kaminsky had 
gone wrong somewhere. 

But tonight I realized that you can indeed use BitCoin to square Zooko’s 
triangle. Here’s how it works: 

Let there be a document called the scroll. The scroll consists of a series of 
lines and each line consists of a tuple (name, key, nonce) such that the first 
N bits of the hash of the scroll from the beginning to the end of a line are all 
zero. As a result, to add a line to the scroll, you need to do enough computation 
to discover an appropriate nonce that causes the bits of the hash to be zero. 

To look up a name, you ask everyone you know for the scroll, trust whichever 
scroll is the longest, and then start from the beginning and take the key for 



the first line with the name you’re looking up. To publish a name, you find an 
appropriate nonce and then send the new line to everyone you know. 

OK, let’s pause there for a second. How do you steal names in such a system? 
First, you need to need to calculate a new nonce for the line you want to steal 
and every subsequent line. Second, you need to get your replacement scroll to 
the user. The first is difficult, but perhaps not impossible, depending on how 
many lines ago the name you want to steal is. It requires having some large 
multiple of the rest of the network’s combined CPU power. This seems like 
a fairly strong constraint to me, but apparently not to Dan. Luckily, we’re 
saved by the second question. 

Let there be a group of machines called the network. Each remembers the 
last scroll it trusted. When a new valid line is created it’s sent to everyone 
in the network and they add it to their scroll . 1 Now stealing an old name is 
impossible, since machines in the network only add new names, they don’t 
accept replacements for old ones. 

That’s fine for machines already in the network, but how do you join? Well, as 
a physical law, to join a network you need the identity of at least one machine 
already in the network. Now when you join, that machine can give you a 
fabricated scroll where they’ve stolen all the names. I don’t think there’s any 
way to avoid this — if you don’t know anyone willing to tell you the correct 
answer, you can’t will the correct answer out of thin air. Even a centralized 
system depends on knowing at least one honest root. 

You can ameliorate this problem by knowing several nodes when you connect 
and asking each of them for their scroll. It seems like the best theoretically- 
possible case would be requiring only one node to be honest. That would 
correspond to trusting whichever node had the longest scroll. But this would 
leave you vulnerable to an attacker who a) has enough CPU power to fabricate 
the longest scroll, and b) can co-opt at least one of your initial nodes. The 
alternative is to trust only scrolls you receive from a majority of your list of 
nodes. This leaves you vulnerable to an attacker who can co-opt a majority 
of your initial nodes. Which tradeoff you pick presumably depends on how 
much you trust your initial nodes. 

Publishing a false scroll is equivalent to fragmenting the namespace and 



starting a separate network. (We can enforce this by requiring nodes to sign 
each latest scroll and publish their signature to be considered members- 
in-good-standing of the network. Any node that attempts to sign two 
contradictory scroll is obviously duplicitous and can be discounted.) So 
another way of describing scenario (b) is to say that to join a network, you 
need a list of nodes where at least a majority are actually nodes in the network. 
This doesn’t seem like an overly strenuous requirement. 

And we ’re actually slightly safer than that, since the majority needs a fair 
amount of CPU to stay plausible. If we assume that you hear new names from 
some out-of-band source, for them to work on the attacker’s network, the 
attacker must have enough CPU to generate lines for each name you might 
use. Otherwise you realize that the names you type in on your computer are 
returning 404s while they work on other people’s computers and begin to 
realize you’ve been had by an attacker. 

So there you have it. The names are secure: they’re identifiable by a key of 
arbitrary length and cannot be stolen. They’re human-meaningful: the name 
can be whatever string you like. And they’re decentralized: no centralized 
authority determines who gets what name and yet they’re available to everyone 
in the network. 

Zooko’s triangle has been squared. 

UPDATE: I’m gratified by all the feedback and I’ve put up a Frequently 
Asked Questions 2 page in response to comments here and elsewhere. 

January 6 , 2011 

1. What happens if two people create a new line at the same time? 

The debate should be resolved by the creation of the next new 

line - whichever line is previous in its scroll is the one to trust 

2 . https : / / squaretriangle . jottit . com/ f aq 




Who takes over for Steve Jobs ? 1 John Gruber recently posted 2 his argument 
for thinking it will be COO Tim Cook. The biggest point in Cook’s favor is 
simple: “He’s already run the company while Jobs has been on leave.” That’s 
true, but it’s less meaningful than it sounds. But to understand why, you need 
to understand how Apple works. 

In the same way that Google is a company driven by engineering or Amazon 
is driven by operations, Apple is driven by taste. Here’s how Apple products 
are created: a team of designers decide exactly what a product should do and 
how it should look and feel, their work is ruthlessly edited by Steve until he 
approves, and then the entire rest of the company is given the task of moving 
mountains to make that dream real. 

Tim Cook is in charge of that third step. And he’s done a masterful job 
of it, accomplishing endless miracles never been seen by the public. Apple 
engineers have invented entirely new chips to fit the specified processing 
power into the tiny cases required by the spec; they build entirely new factories 
with entirely new production processes just to perfectly match the shade of 
pink in the original design; they’ve created a revolution in logistics to ensure 
these amazing products get into customers’ hands on launch day. Cook runs 
this process, and there’s no doubt he’s brilliant at it. 

But it’s about fulfilling Jobs’ dreams, not forging new ones. He can continue 
to run the company while Jobs is away because he’s continuing to ensure 
the execution of designs that Jobs has already approved. But Apple can’t run 
indefinitely on old plans. The only reason it works for Cook to be in charge 
while Steve is away is because Steve is still around, doing ruthless critiques 
of yet-to-be-invented products from his sickbed. 

The only person with the credibility to helm Apple in the long run is a person 
who can do those critiques. And for all Cook’s brilliance, I’ve seen no evidence 
he’s a master of great taste. His creativity is at achieving a predetermined 
goal, not about deciding what goal to achieve. 



As Gruber says, whoever takes Steve’s place will be someone already at 
Apple. Not just because all the other options are absurd, but because Steve 
has spent the past decade or so carefully training his top lieutenants about 
how to do every aspect of his job. It makes no sense to hire from outside that 
elite group. But within that group, there’s only one person who makes any 
sense as tastemaker-in-chief: Jony Ive. 

This becomes obvious if you just watch the keynotes. Steve Jobs is well known 
for raising the product keynote to an art form. But the others who have taken 
over the speaking job in recent years — Scott Forstall, Phil Schiller, Tim 
Cook — seem like clumsy kids trying to fill the shoes of the master. There’s only 
one person at Apple who gives talks with the elegance and style of Steve: Jony Ive. 

Now the big criticism of Ive is that while he is clearly one of the most brilliant 
industrial designers in the world, he’s shown no aptitude for software design. 
It’s hard to know whether this is true. The Mobile Design Awards credited 
Ive 3 with the iPhone’s user interface, but the patent credits Jobs and Forstall 
and a dozen others, but not Ive. 

But even if Ive never designed a piece of software in his life, it’d be beside the 
point. I can’t imagine Jobs has either. What’s needed atop Apple is not creative 
brilliance — they have a design department full of that — but editorial taste. 
Like the director of a film 4 , Apple’s CEO needs to go through the thousands 
of creative ideas developed within Apple and decide which ones should be 
approved for production and which ones need to sent back for more work. 

It’s impossible to imagine Apple functioning without this role. (Would Apple 
splinter and start developing all sorts of random unapproved products like 
Google under Eric Schmidt?) It’s impossible to imagine Tim Cook filling 
this role. (How can he be tastemaker for the whole company if he can’t even 
pull off a decent keynote?) And it’s impossible to imagine this role being 
anywhere but at the top of the org chart. (It’d be like crediting a film to the 
producer instead of the director.) 

No, if Apple is to continue, it will be with a tastemaker at the top. And there 
are no serious candidates besides Ive. 

July 22, 2011 



1. This piece was written before Steve stepped down as CEO, but I think 
it still stands. I mean when Steve really leaves: it seems obvious 
that even as "Chairman of the Board" rather than CEO, he's still 
tastemaker-in-chief at Apple. 

2 . http : / / daringfirebal 1 .net/2011/07 / succeeding_ste ve_ j obs 

3 . 
mda-award-for-iconic-iphone-design . ars 

4 . http : // kottke . org/ 11/07/ a-day-in-the-life-of- john-lasseter 




Pretty much ever since Paul Buchheit suggested “Don’t be evil” as a corporate 
values statement (and Amit Patel begun writing it on whiteboards around 
the office), any time Google does something people don’t like, they begin 
calling it “evil” and complaining that Google is violating its prime directive. 

But surely “evil” means something more than just “wrong” or “bad”. If the 
girl across the street peers through your window to watch you undress, we 
might say that was bad and wrong and awful, but I don’t think anyone would 
try to claim it was evil. Evil is a really strong term! 

Now part of the joke is that Google seems to be using it rather loosely. If 
you look at their examples of evil deeds 1 , they seem rather mundane compared 
to cackling supervillains and mass murderers. They specifically name three: 
showing irrelevant ads, using pop-ups or other annoying gimmicks, and 
selling off actual search results. 

Hardly the stuff of comic books. But what do these three have in common? 
They’re all instances of refusing to make things worse for your users in order 
to make more money. Perhaps that still seems like a mundane conception 
of evil, but I think it gets at something important. Evil isn’t just about doing 
terrible things — it’s about doing terrible things for bad reasons. The evil 
villain cackles and brags about how they’re on the side of evil — they explicitly 
oppose doing good. And this definition of evil is all about that: if you’re 
working against your own users, you must have crossed the line and joined 
the other side. 

When you stop to think about it, it’s wild how many companies have 
done just that: Printer manufacturers who put chips on their ink cartridges, 
so you can’t refill or recycle them but instead have to buy a new full-price 
cartridge. Apple preventing the Kindle app from having any sort of ebook 
buying functionality. Web publishers who break articles up into 20 pages so 
that you have to load 20 different ads just to read one article. These are pretty 
banal evils, but it’s striking that I can’t think of any example where Google 



has done anything like that. (Perhaps someone will name one I’ve missed in 
the comments.) 

There are lots of things I disagree with Google about — the most recent 
being their refusal to let my friends with chosen names 2 use Google+ — but 
those things aren’t evil by this definition. For example, Google defends 3 their 
real names policy by saying it’ll lead to better conversations. They still claim 
to be fighting for the user. 

So if you want to argue with Google, that’s the way to do it: don’t say that 
they’re hurting someone out there in the world or violating some rule or 
principle, say that what they’re doing isn’t serving their users. Because that’s 
the line Google’s afraid to cross. 

Thanks to Kragen Sitaker for discussions 4 that inspired this post. 

UPDATE: Chris Soghoian observes 5 Google refuses to add Do-Not-Track 
support to its browsers or servers in order to maximize ad profits. Scott Teresi 
suggests 6 Google’s refusal to provide customer support (in order to save 
money) qualifies. Tom Slee reminds me 7 of their infamous net neutrality deal 
with Verizon. John Gruber argues 8 that having ads at all is evil in this sense. 
Mark Heath points to 9 those infuriating YouTube ads. 

August 22 , 2011 

1 . http : / /www. google . com/about /corporate /company/ tenthings . html 


3 . http: / /www. jwz .org/blog/2011/08/nym-wars/ 

4 . http : //lists . canonical . org/pipermail/kragen-discuss/20 1 1- 
August/ 001176. html 

5 . http: / / 

6 . http : / / www . aaronsw .com/ weblog/ googevi l#c 1 0 

7 . http: / /www. aaronsw. com/weblog/googevil#c 19 

8 . 

9 . http: / /www. aaronsw. com/weblog/googevil#c3 3 




After reading the new biography Steve Jobs, the person I most identify with 
is Jony Ive. Ive and Jobs became close friends and collaborators, but Ive, “so 
instinctively nice,” found himself puzzled about how his good friend could 
be so mean: 

He’s a very, very sensitive guy. That’s one of the things that makes his 
antisocial behavior, his rudeness, so unconscionable. I can understand 
why people who are thick-skinned and unfeeling can be rude, but not 
sensitive people. [. . .And] because of how very sensitive he is, he knows 
exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do 
that. (462) 

Steve’s fits are legendary. “He would shout at a meeting, ‘You asshole, you 
never do anything right,”’ recalls his director of finance, Debi Coleman. “It 
was like an hourly occurrence.” (124) “This is shit!” he yelled after seeing the 
first draft of the “Here’s to the crazy ones” ad. “It’s advertising agency shit 
and I hate it.” (329) 

Something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was shitty, brain- 
dead, inedible. . . .Any perceived flaw could set off a rant. The finish on 
a piece of metal, the curve on the head of a screw, the shade of blue on 
a box, the intuitiveness of a navigation screen — he would declare them 
to “completely suck” until that moment when he suddenly pronounced 
them “absolutely perfect.” (561) 

One way of reading this is that Steve Jobs is just a sociopath, someone who 
knows exactly where people’s weaknesses are and plays on them masterfully 
until they do exactly, precisely what he wants, without little concern about 
human consequences. 

But there’s another, more sympathetic reading. I think Jobs really did feel 
this way. He had such an intense aesthetic sense that even something as minor 
as the curve on the head of the screw could cause him enormous pain. And, 



like anyone in pain, he responded by lashing out at the people around him. 
There are some people who, when they’re insulted, can’t resist punching the 
person who insulted them. Steve wasn’t much for physical violence, but when 
something looked off to him, he couldn’t help screaming. 

I sympathize because I can see this in myself. Something that’s perfect just 
feels much, much better than something that’s almost right. When I’m doing 
something myself, I can just sit there and work at it until it’s exactly right. It’s 
embarrassing to launch a product with a bug in it! It physically hurts when 
I realize that’s what I’ve done. But as projects and companies grow, there are 
more and more people in between me and those tiny details. And then I face 
a choice: do I keep complaining until something’s perfect or do I just let go 
and consider it somebody else’s problem? 

Steve never let go. He continued to feel that founder’s pain about everything 
in his life. When it was his project, he’d make people stay late until they got 
it right. When it was his company, he’d go right to the person responsible, 
even if they were 5 levels down in the org chart, and make them fix it. (“After 
looking at a bunch of screenshots, Jobs jumped up, grabbed a marker, and 
drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard. ‘Here’s the new application,’ he said. 
‘It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click 
the button that says “Burn. ’’That’s it.’” (382)) 

In fact, it didn’t matter whose company it was. He once sent his fresh- 
squeezed juice back to the kitchen three times in a row until they got it right 
(527); when his cable box was frustrating him, he called the CEO of Comcast. 
(“I thought he was calling to say something nice about it,” the CEO recalled. 
“Instead, he told me ‘It sucks.’” (489)) 

And that’s why I like Jony Ive. He too clearly feels that pain (he once insisted 
they hold up an entire product launch because he didn’t like the polish on the 
screws) but he doesn’t lash out at people about it. Instead, he sits down with 
the people involved and works to fix the problem until they get it just right. 

Ask Jobs about his viciousness and he insisted it was all for the best: “I’ve 
learned over the years that when you have really good people you don’t have 
to baby them. . .A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if 
you tolerate B work. Ask any member of that Mac team. They will tell you 



it was worth the pain.” Even Debi Coleman agreed: “I consider myself the 
absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.” 

But does it require so much pain? My hope is that I can be just as exacting, 
demand work just as good, without emotionally destroying people in the 
process. I want to be a perfectionist and a nice guy. I want to be Jony Ive. I 
hope it works — for my sake, and Apple’s. 

1 hanks to Ben Wikler for suggesting this post. 

November 3, 2011 




The Amazon Kindle is full of all sorts of amazing, delightful touches — the 
sort of thing you’d expect from an Apple product. For example, when you 
first take your Kindle out of its (gorgeous!) box, it boots right up knowing 
your name and logged into your account. This is actually out-Apple-ing 
Apple: it’s possible because Amazon not only controls the hardware and the 
software, but the entire distribution channel; they know exactly who is going 
to get each Kindle. 

And think about how the original Kindle came with a lifetime unlimited 
worldwide data plan. Imagine how much that must have cost! All so that 
you never had to think about syncing again: your Kindle was automatically 
synced, no matter where it was in the world. 

Bezos must have spent tons of energy getting this stuff right. And he must 
be sitting there, pissed, that Steve Jobs gets all these laurels while no one ever 
recognizes the stuff he’s done. But I don’t think that’s because Jobs is a better 
marketer and showman than Bezos (that’s the easy way out); it’s because the 
small details that delight get buried under small details that annoy. 

For example, if you download a sample of a book and get to the end and 
decide to purchase the whole thing, the sample doesn’t expand to download 
the remainder of the book — instead the full book downloads completely 
separately and you have to manually copy over all your highlights and 
annotations to the full one. (You can’t just keep them in the sample because 
sample’s don’t even sync; you have to download a sample manually to each 
of your devices and hand-synchronize the page numbers.) 

Or (and this is incredibly aggravating) when you select a word in the Kindle, 
depending on how common a word it is, the option that comes up highlighted 
by default is either “full definition” or “start highlight”. Since e-ink’s refresh 
rate is so slow, you typically don’t see what’s actually come up until you’ve 
pressed the button for the second time. So I often “double click” on words to 
highlight them, but some percentage of the time this kicks me over into the 



dictionary and I have to hit back twice to get out. 

And this is all before I’ve even got to the disastrous incompatibilities between 
the Kindle device, the Kindle for Mac app, the Kindle for iOS app, the 
Kindle Online Reader (, and the social 
network — all of which are full of gruesome interface annoyances of their own. 

That’s the thing about delightful details: they’re not just another thing you 
can add on top. Unless you sweat the details all the way through the user 
experience, the ones that delight quickly get drowned out by the ones that 
constantly annoy. I hope someone at Amazon will take that to heart. 

November 3, 2011 




I hate to wade into such a sterile debate as whether social media helps 
revolutions, but I made a point about it recently at a conference and people 
seemed to like it, so I thought I’d put it up here for posterity. 

Jon Elster has a four-phase theory of revolutions: 1 

1. A hard-core of committed activists get together to do something 
completely crazy. 

2. The regime cracks down, attracting people who are sympathetic to 
the cause to rally to the support of the crazy ones. 

3. As the protests grow, it seems like they might have a reasonable 
chance of succeeding and it seems worth it even for just normal 
reasonable people to start joining in. 

4. The protests become so overwhelmingly large that even their 
opponents pretend to be part of them, so as not to be on the wrong 
side of history. 

It seems pretty clear that the Internet helps with 1 — after all, it’s brought 
together groups of crazy committed people about every other topic, from 
Smallville slash fiction to high-energy astrophysics. It’d be very surprising if 
it didn’t bring committed activists together too. 

It’s clearly helped with 2 — YouTube videos of protestors being mistreated 
by police have been a staple of the foccupy movement, even though they 
haven’t gotten much coverage on traditional TV; We are all Khaled Said 
presumably reached some people in Egypt. 

3 and 4 are when the cable news and satellite television stations start joining 
in and when people support the protest just because it’s such a huge physical 
presence in their lives. Here, I agree, the Internet probably has less effect. 

The problem is that you never get to 3 and 4 without 1 and 2 — I don’t 
think it’s a total accident that all of these protests are happening now. I think 



they’re happening because 1 and 2 have been made much easier thanks to 
the Internet. It’s just that most people don’t hear about them until steps 3 
and 4, which are carried much more by traditional media. They suffer from 
the understandable fallacy that just because they heard about it on TV, that 
must be how everyone else did. 

November l, 2011 

1. Outlined in the preface to his book Political Psychology (Cambridge; 

1993 ) 




As a workaday Python developer, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the 
Python 2 to 3 transition isn’t working. I get occasional requests to make my 
libraries work in 3 but it’s far from clear how to and when I try to look it 
up I find all sorts of conflicting advice, none of which sounds very practical. 

Indeed, when you see new 3.x versions rolling off the line and no one using 
them, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Python might die in this transition. 
How will we ever make it across the chasm? 

It seems to me that in all the talk about Python 3000 being a new, radical, 
blue-sky vision of the future, we neglected the proven methods of getting 
there. In the Python 2 era, we had a clear method for adding language changes: 

• In Python 2. a, support for from future import new_feature was 

added so you could use the new feature if you explicitly declared you 
wanted it. 

• In Python 2.b, support was added by default so you could just use it 
without the future declaration. 

• In Python 2.c, warnings begun being issued when you tried to use the old 
way, explaining you needed to change or your code would stop working. 

• In Python 2.d, it actually did stop working. 

It seems to me this process worked pretty well. And I don’t see why it couldn’t 
work for the Python 3 transition. This would mean mainly just: 

A Python 2.x release that added support for from future import python3. 

Putting this at the top of a file would declare it to be a Python3 file and 
allow the interpreter to parse it accordingly. (I realize behind the scenes this 
would mean a lot of work to merge tr 2 and 3 interpreters, but honestly it 
would always have been better to have a unified codebase to maintain.) 

Then if I wanted my Python 2 program to use some 3 modules, I just need 
to make sure those modules have the import line at the top. If I want to do 



a new release of my module that works on Python 3, 1 just need to declare 
that it only works in Python 2.x and higher and release aversion that’s been 
run through 2to3 (with the new import statement). If my project is big, I 
can even port files to 3 one at a time, leaving the rest as 2 until someone gets 
around to fixing the rest. Most importantly, I can start porting to Puhon 3 
without waiting for all my dependencies to do the same, parallelizing what 
until now has been a rather serial process. 

Users know they can safely upgrade to 2.x since it won’t break any existing 
code. Developers know everyone will eventually upgrade to 2.x so they can 
drop support for earlier versions. But since 2.x supports code that also runs 
in 3, they can start writing and releasing code that’s future-compatible as 
well. Eventually the vast major code will work in 3 and users can upgrade 
to 3. (2.x will issue warnings to the remaining stragglers.) Finally, we can 
drop support for 2.x and all live happily having crossed the bridge together. 

This isn’t a radical idea. It’s how Python upgrades have always worked. And 
unless we use it again, I don’t see how we’re ever going to cross this chasm. 

March 9, 2012 





A good project starts with a need. It’s nice if it’s a big need - that way you 
have a lot of potential customers - but much more important than that is 
that it’s an acute need. Users should be hungering to fill this need - it should 
be so that when they find out about your product, they’re compelled to use 
it. If you fill a desperate need of one person, you have at least one dedicated 
customer; if you fill a kind of theoretical need for 6 billion, you could easily 
end up with none. And since people are often alike, filling a need for one 
person usually fills a need for many others - or can easily be adapted to do so. 

It’s important that you feel this need yourself. Ideally, it’s a need that you 
have, borne of your own experience. For example, you might be desperately 
searching for someone to date you. Second-best is if you can go out and 
try living the lifestyle that inspires that need. For example, if you’re happily 
married, you might try asking your spouse for a pass so that you can go out 
and desperately try to find a date. It’s not really the same, but at least it’s 
something. At the very least, you should sit and watch people who have this 
need and be able to empathize with them. Go be your single friend’s wing- 
person and watch them try to find someone. 

Of course, it is possible for your need to be too idiosyncratic. Sometimes 
people will be so in love with an idea that they’ll pretend to have a need for 
it. You want to make sure it’s a genuine need you’re filling and one good way 
to do that is to make sure you can find at least one stranger who feels the 
need as acutely as you do. 

Example time: I worked on a site that provided people with a list of 
interesting and funny things to look at. For most office workers, this is a 
pretty acute need - offices are boring and you really can only sit at your 
computer and look at things, so you’re desperate for something interesting 
to look at to break the tedium. By contrast, my friend worked on a site that 
let you look up various government things that were happening around you 



(new liquor permits getting approved, people getting arrested, cars getting 
towed, etc.)- You can come up with lots of stories about why this is interesting 
or why people might want to know this sort of thing, but there’s no real acute 
need that this site fills. Despite the fact that my friend did a much better job 
than I did, the site I was working on became vastly more popular than his. 


But a need is not enough - you also need an idea to meet the need. Look 
at your idea objectively for a second. Does it really seem like it will really 
meet the need? Most bad ideas are bad because they don’t really do that. You 
want to work forwards from the need to the idea, not backwards from your 
idea toward some sort of justification. The government data site I mentioned 
suffered from this problem - government data is really cool and providing 
people with an easy way to search through it seems like a really cool idea. 
And once you’re in love with that idea, it’s easy to come up with needs that 
it might fill. But you’re just coming up with justifications. It’s not a direct 
way of addressing any one need. And it’s always better to nail one need than 
to kind of fill two. 

This isn’t to say that one idea can’t solve multiple needs. Great ideas do. 
But they genuinely solve them. They’re direct and sensible solutions to the 
problem, not just ways to shoehorn different needs into justifying an idea 
you’re already fond of. 

Take the iPhone for example. You might say “What need does the iPhone 
solve? Steve Jobs just came up with a really good generic idea and then it 
happened to be useful to fill all sorts of needs.” But that’s not true at all. 
When the iPhone was launched, Jobs insisted it filled three needs: it was a 
widescreen video iPod, a vibrant Internet communicator, and a phone that’s 
fun to use. Let’s take the one of these that seems least like the iPhone. What 
would you need to just make a great widescreen video iPod? Well, you’d need 
a big, wide screen that takes up the whole device and a long-lasting battery. 
You’d also need some kind of input mechanism, but how do you do that when 
the screen takes up the whole device? Well, you have to make the screen the 
input mechanism. But now you have a brick about the size of your phone 
sitting in your pocket. You really ought to combine them. So why not use the 
touchscreen to provide the interface to a phone that’s fun to use? And now 



that you have a big touchscreen and a wireless connection, it seems silly not to 
be able to use it to access the Internet. . . and you’re back at the iPhone. Even 
Steve Jobs wasn’t good enough to sell a good idea that doesn’t fill a real need. 

Once you have a basic idea, you don’t need to go into a ton of detail about it. 
But since you’re the kind of creative person that likes coming up with ideas, you 
will anyway. You’ll constantly come up with all sorts of cool features or add- 
ons or uses and whatnot. These are not important, which means that they’ll 
distract you unless you do something with them. So put them all in a Lenin 
Document. A Lenin Document is just a description of what the maximalist 
version of your idea will look like, starting from the core features (it will be 
able to make phone calls) and working out toward the more obscure (it’ll 
have an app that will let you control your toaster from bed!). 

You’ll probably never look at this document again, but all the good ideas 
you and your colleagues come up with will stop harrassing you so much once 
you have a safe place to write them down in. 


Oh wait, what colleagues? You’ll also need to put together a team. When 
hiring someone, you want to ask three key questions: 

• Are they smart? 

• Can they get things done? 

• Can you work with them? 

It’s tempting to skimp on these, e.g. by hiring someone who meets two out 
of three. But it’s a big mistake. Someone who’s smart but doesn’t get stuff 
done should be your friend, not your employee. Even if you don’t hire them, 
you can still talk your problems over with them while they procrastinate on 
their existing job. Someone who gets stuff done but isn’t smart is inefficient: 
non-smart people are always doing things the hard way and smart people 
can’t bear to watch them do it and are always taking time off of their real jobs 
to go over and help. Someone you can’t work with, you really can’t work with. 
It’s always tempting to say “well, it’s just work, we don’t have to be friends”, 
but work is hard and if you don’t feel like you can honestly communicate with 
someone, they end up doing the wrong thing and you don’t correct them and 



then they just end up sitting in a corner somewhere not doing anything useful. 

The traditional programmer hiring process consists of: a) reading a resume, b) 
asking some hard questions on the phone, and c) giving them a programming 
problem in person. I think this is a terrible system for hiring people. You 
learn very little from a resume and people get real nervous when you ask 
them tough questions in an interview. Programming isn’t typically a job done 
under pressure, so seeing how people perform when nervous is pretty useless. 
And the interview questions usually asked seem chosen just to be cruel. How 
many of the people asking these questions could actually answer them the 
first time they heard them? 

Instead, just try to answer the three questions. To find out if they can get 
stuff done, ask what they’ve done. If someone can actually get stuff done, they 
should have done so by now. If someone’s really good at getting stuff done, they 
wouldn’t have been able to avoid it. It’s hard to be a good programmer without 
some previous experience and these days anyone can get some experience 
by starting or contributing to a free software project. So just request a code 
sample and a demo and see whether it looks good. You learn an enormous 
amount really quickly, because you’re not watching them answer a contrived 
interview question, you’re seeing their actual production code. Is it concise? 
clear? elegant? usable? Is it something you’d want in your product? 

To find out whether someone’s smart, just have a casual conversation with 
them. Do everything you can to take the pressure off: meet at a cafe, make 
it clear it’s not an interview, do your best to be casual and friendly. Under no 
circumstances should you ask them any standard “interview questions”- just 
chat with them like you would with someone you met at a party. (If you ask 
people at parties to name their greatest strengths and weaknesses or to estimate 
the number of piano tuners in Chicago, you’ve got bigger problems.) It’s pretty 
easy to tell whether someone’s smart in casual conversation. We constantly 
make judgments about whether the people we meet are smart, just like we 
constantly make judgments about whether the people we see are attractive. 

But if you’re still not sure, look at three things. First, do they know stuff? 
Ask them what they’ve been thinking about and probe them about it. Do 
they seem to understand it in detail? Can they explain it clearly? (Clear 
explanations, ala Feynman, are a sign of genuine understanding.) Do they 



know stuff about the subject that you don’t? Second, are they curious? Do they 
reciprocate by asking questions about you? Are they genuinely interested or 
just being polite? Do they ask follow-up questions about what you’re saying? 
Do their questions make you think? Third, do they learn? At some point in 
the conversation, you’ll probably be explaining something to them. Do they 
actually understand it or do they just nod and smile? There are people who 
know stuff about some small area but aren’t curious about others. And there 
are people who are curious but don’t learn, they ask lots of questions but don’t 
really listen. You want someone who does all three. 

Finally, figure out if you can work with them by just hanging out with them 
for a bit. Many brilliant people can seem delightful in a one-hour conversation, 
but their eccentricities become grating after a couple hours. So after you’re 
done chatting, invite them along for a meal with the rest of the team or a 
game at the office. Again, keep things as casual as possible. The point is just 
to see whether they get on your nerves. 

If all that looks good and you’re ready to hire someone, do one last sanity 
check to make sure you haven’t been fooled somehow: ask them to do part 
of the job. Usually this means picking some small and separable component 
you expect to need and asking them to write it. (If you really insist on seeing 
someone working under pressure, give them a deadline.) If necessary, you 
can offer to pay them for the work, but most programmers don’t mind being 
given a small task like this as long as they can open source whatever they did 
when they’re done. This test doesn’t work on its own, but if someone’s passed 
the first three parts, it should be enough to prove they didn’t trick you, they 
can actually do the work they say they can. 

Now it’s tempting to say “OK, well why don’t we try hiring you for a month 
and see how it goes. ’’This doesn’t work. First, it makes the person you hire 
feel like they’re on eggshells the whole time, constantly having to prove 
themselves, which is cruel and counterproductive (the stress and fear makes 
them less productive). Second, if you can’t bear to say no after a small project, 
you also won’t be able to after a month and then you’ve just ended up hiring 
someone who isn’t good enough. Better to just say no and err on the side of 
getting better people. 




Now that you have your team, it’s time to actually do some work. It’s tempting 
to just dive in and start building your big dream (complete with the part that 
lets you make toast from bed). But this is a huge waste. You don’t want to do 
the most you can, you want to do the least you can. Here’s how. 

To work, every idea depends on certain hypotheses about the world; if the 
hypotheses aren’t true, our idea won’t succeed. Let’s say you work at an airline 
and the need you’ve identified is that people hate waiting in line to board and 
your idea for solving it is that they can buy a $5 “Early Board” ticket when 
they check in to get called to board the plane first. Now this idea depends 
on several hypotheses: 

• Our customers want to board the plane early 

• Our customers will pay $5 to do so 

• Our customers will want to do this at check in 

• But not so many of them will buy it that they all end up waiting in 
line again 

• ...and so on 

You’ll want to write out these hypotheses and pick the most important. Let’s 
say that “Our customers want to board the plane early” is the most important. 
Now remember, if this hypothesis is false, all the work we’ve done will be 
wasted. So let’s do as little work as we can until we’ve proven that it’s true. 

So what’s the minimum necessary to test it? The original term for this is 
Minimum Viable Product or MVP, but this term has become a buzzword 
hijacked by people who don’t really understand it. Most people would say 
the minimum viable product for this idea is a real bare-bones system that 
just lets you pay an extra $5 at checkout and maybe writes an extra letter on 
your boarding pass and then instructing all the gate agents to call people with 
that letter up first. Pretty easy, right? 

Maybe, but it could be way easier. The truly minimal way to test this 
hypothesis is just to add a button to one of the checkout screens that says 
“Click here to board first.” When someone clicks it, an error message pops 
up saying “Sorry, our ‘Early Board’ program isn’t available. ’’And you measure 



how many people press the button. If a lot of people press it, then clearly 
people do want to board early. If nobody presses it, then there’s no demand 
for the product. 

But how many presses are enough? It’s very easy to come up with justifications 
for any number after the fact. “Oh, a thousand people pressed the button,” 
you’ll say. “That’s huge! That’s ten times as many use our deluxe bag check 

“No it’s not,” replies your arch-enemy. “That’s a huge flop. That’s half as 
many people used the elite pre-screen service.” 

You can avoid these arguments by just picking a number in advance that 
you and your arch-enemy agree on. You both sign off on it, saying that if it’s 
above the number you’ll agree the hypothesis will have been proven and if 
it’s below the number it will have been disproven. 

But what sort of number should you pick? Actually counting the literal 
number of button-presses isn’t a very good idea. It’s known as a vanity metric. 
Let’s say only one out of a hundred people actually want to board the plane 
early, but your test happens to run during Christmas break, when three times 
as many people are flying as normally. Well, your button easily vaults over the 
two-thousand-person goal you set for it, but that’s not because the button is 
so popular - it’s because so many extra people were flying that week. 

Instead, you want to measure an innovation metric, a number that’s 
independent of everything except the thing you’re testing. In this case, we’d 
want to measure th & percentage of people who clicked the button. Let’s say your 
goal is that 3% of everyone who saw the button clicked it. That’s a number 
that won’t shoot up just because a lot of extra people are traveling that week. 

Of course, it might go down because Christmas travelers are less savvy than 
your usual travelers. So you might want to adjust your metric further and 
say your goal is for 3% of all frequent travelers to click the button. That’s a 
metric that will stay stable even if a lot of occasional travelers happen to be 
flying that week. 

You can even go further and develop cohorts. A cohort is a group of people 



chosen in advance. For example, you might pick out a group of specific 
frequent travelers in advance and only show them the button. That way, there’s 
no way an influx of new customers can possibly affect your test - they’ll never 
see it, since you’ve already picked out the specific existing customers who will. 

You may also want to develop a control. Perhaps adding another button makes 
people less likely to buy a (much more expensive) seat upgrade. So take your 
pool of people picked in advance and randomly divide them in half. Half 
will get the button and the other half won’t. Then you can compare metrics 
between the two halves to see if adding the button changed anything. Perhaps 
4% of the experiment group bought an upgrade but 8% of the control group 
did - that would be a difference you could factor into your future planning. 


Once you’ve identified a hypothesis, a minimal way to test it, and a clear 
set of metrics for evaluating it, it’s time to actually build it. You should start 
by picking a product owner. This is the “Steve Jobs” of your product - they’re 
empowered to sign off on every detail to make sure the whole thing coheres. 

You should write a card (this can be a physical 3x5 card or a task in some kind 
of task management system like Asana) describing your proposed experiment 
and the metrics you’ll use for evaluating it: 

• Select a cohort of frequent travelers and divide them into an 
experiment and a control group. 

• Asa member of the experiment group, when I check in for my flight 
I should see a button offering me a chance to board the plane first. 

If I click it, I should get an error saying this service isn’t currently 

• This is to test the hypothesis that our customers want to board 
early. We’ll consider the hypothesis proven if more than 2% of the 
experimental group presses the button. We’ll also monitor their 
purchase of other upgrades and their check-in completion rate to 
make sure introducing the button doesn’t have any severe adverse 

Note that the first paragraph decides who gets experimented on. The second 



is a story about a change to a user’s experience. And the third paragraph 
explains why we’re testing and what metrics we’ll look at. 

This will go into a stack of cards (or an online todo list) sorted by priority, 
with the most important hypotheses to test at the top. Your designer, when 
they’re done with their current task, will pull a card from the top of the pile. 
They will then work with the product owner to design what this experience 
should look like (where do you put the button? what exactly does it say?). Once 
the product owner has signed off on it, they’ll hand the card to a programmer 
and work with them to implement the design. 

Practical problems with implementation or experience with actually using 
it once implemented may cause them to revise the design a couple times, and 
maybe they bring the product owner in for more feedback on their revisions. 


It’s good practice to write automated tests for your software as you’re 
developing it, so that people can easily know if they’ve broken part of it later. 
When you think you’re finished, you can run the automated tests to make 
sure they all pass. You want to make sure the automated tests run against 
both the control and all the experiment arms, of course. 

Programming is a mentally strenuous job, so it’s often more efficient to 
have programmers work in pairs, with one typing and another observing and 
commenting. (Sometimes it’s fun to have one person in the pair writing the 
tests, then sliding the keyboard over and having the other person write the 
code that makes them pass and the next round of tests.) 

If you don’t have a pair working with you the whole time, you should at 
least make sure you pull someone over to evaluate the changes you made. 
You should always read the diff before committing code to the project (for 
example, by running git diff HEAD). 


If you’re building a network service (e.g. a web application), you should 
design it as a Twelve-Factor Application 1 . A Twelve-Factor Application 



follows twelve principles: 

1. The entire application’s code is stored in a single revision control 
repository. If you have multiple repositories for different parts of the 
software, you should consider them to be separate applications that 
treat each other as services. If you have multiple applications in a 
single repository, you should factor out whatever they both use as a 
library they both depend on and then split them into two codebases. 
For your revision control system, you will probably want to use git, 
because it’s the most featureful and most popular. 

2. All your dependencies should be explicitly declared. In Ruby you 
can do this with a Gemfile, in Python with requirements.txt, etc. 
Locally, you should use a tool like bundler or virtualenv to isolate 
your environment to make sure you aren’t using any undeclared 

3. All configuration values should be stored as environment variables. 
This includes anything you’d be afraid of making public, like 
passwords or secret keys, as well as anything that might be different 
from deploy to deploy, including the locations of databases or the 
administrator email address. 

4. All backing services (like databases or in-memory caches) are treated 
as services. No distinction is made between local and third-party 
services; they’re all accessed over the network. 

5. Code is deployed in three separate stages: build (in which the 
software is compiled and built), release (in which it’s combined with 
the configuration environment and put onto the appropriate servers), 
and run (in which it’s executed). These stages should be completely 
isolated - the server can’t change its configuration at runtime, since 
the release stage has already been passed. And the release process 
can’t edit the software, since the build stage has already passed. 

6. The application should execute as a series of stateless processes 
that share nothing - any process should be able to be killed at any 
time. This means any state needs to be stored in one of the backing 

7. The application should be completely self-contained and contact 
the outside world through an IP port (designated by the $PORT 
environment variable). It shouldn’t be expecting to live inside some 
sort of larger process. 



8. The application should be made up of various process types and be 
able to scale by starting more instances of these process types. For 
example, if there’s a lot of web traffic, you should be able to handle it 
by starting more instances of the web process type. 

9. Processes should be disposable - you should be able to start them and 
stop them at a moment’s notice, without any harm. 

10. The gap between development and production should be kept small 
- the same backing services, dependencies, and team should be used 
in both places. Development is just another deploy of the application 
with a slightly different config. 

11. Logs are just a stream of events written unbuffered to stdout. It’s not 
the application’s job to make sure they get to the right place; that’s 
the job of the infrastructure. 

12. Administration tasks should be run as one-off processes. 

You should also use a 12-factor hosting system, like Heroku 2 , since it will 
force you to obey these constraints. 

You should also introduce a Chaos Monkey to further ensure the robustness 
of your system. A Chaos Monkey is an automated process that deactivates 
different elements of a system to ensure they are robust in response to outages. 
For example, processes are meant to be disposable, so a Chaos Monkey would 
automatically kill randomly-selected production processes. This both provides 
an incentive for developers to avoid depending on processes being persistent 
and, if they make a mistake and do it anyway, catches the mistake early rather 
than later when it compounds with others and causes a catastrophic failure. 


Developers commit their code to the revision control repository once the 
changes are made and all the tests pass. 

If their code requires changes to one of the backing services (e.g. a change 
to the database schema), this should be done through migrations. A migration 
describes how to make and rollback such a change. When a new version of 
the software is deployed, any un-run migrations are run, synchronizing its 
version of the backing service to the one the code depends on. Upon rolling 
back, the migrations are also rolled back. This makes sure the backing services 



and the code are always in sync. 

Almost all new code is committed to the main line of development (aka 
trunk or HEAD). This avoids the painful task of merging different branches 
of development later. Since any big change should be implemented as an 
experiment, if a change is unfinished or unready, it can be easily turned 
off by keeping most users out of the experiment. When the code is ready, 
more people can be added to the experimental group and the toggle can be 
eventually removed. 

Once a commit is made to the repository, the repository should automatically 
build, release, and run the code in a fresh testing environment and run the 
automated tests against it. It should then try running the code and the 
migrations against a full copy of the production backing services (read: 
database) and try applying and rolling back the migrations, making sure the 
tests pass either way. 

If they all pass, it should be pushed forward to production. To make sure 
that broken code that somehow got passed the tests doesn’t make it into 
production, you should have an immune system to monitor the deploy. The 
immune system will watch your key innovation metrics (looking at new 
revenue, new users, etc.) to make sure they haven’t been adversely affected 
by the deploy. If they are, it will automatically roll back and alert the team. 

To make sure that code that hasn’t been reviewed by the product owner 
doesn’t make it into production, you give them control over launching the 
experiments. New features will initially make it into production with no one 
in the experiment. The product owner can then either add themselves to the 
experiment or turn the experiment on for everyone on a preview server to test 
it. QAs can also test it there as well. When everyone is happy, more people 
can be added to the experiment. If the metrics look good, even more can be 
added, until eventually 100% of users are in the experiment and the control 
arm can be removed from the codebase. 


Some people will encourage you to have a big Hollywood-style launch, 
hyping the release date for months in advance before throwing it open to 



an appreciative world. This may work well for Hollywood - if your movie is 
a big hit at the box-office on opening weekend, then the movie theaters are 
more likely to keep showing it in the weeks to come and you get credit for 
being “one of the weekend’s biggest films”. But for software developers, it’s 
nonsensical. Your software isn’t being released in theaters, it’s available over 
the Web. You don’t have to worry about the theater no longer showing after 
week one; you can keep pushing it for years, growing your userbase. 

The problem with a big launch is that, unless you are perfect, launch day 
always reveals bugs and conceptual errors you hadn’t noticed before. Now 
millions of people are visiting your product and experiencing those mistakes. 
(Perhaps one of your mistakes is that you didn’t properly load test the service 
and now they’re experiencing a downed website.) 

Instead, you should treat your launch as another experiment, slowly ramping 
up the number of people allowed inside as long as the metrics are peforming 
well. Follow Gmail’s example: give invitations to a handful of people, test your 
hypotheses against their usage and feedback, and when they like it let them 
invite a few more. Slowly ramp up until everyone that wants an invitation 
has one and the whole world is inside your big experiment. 

Good luck! 

June 26, 2012 


This document was originally written by Aaron Swartz and is an 
assemblage of many different ideas, his and others. The need and idea 
discussions were probably influenced by discussions with Paul Graham. 
Hiring was adapted from Aaron’s “How I Hire Programmers” which 
written in response to Joel Spolsky’s writing (his book on hiring is called 
Smart and Gets Things Done). Hypothesis is adapted from The Lean 
Startups and the Toyota Production System. Team and Development are 
based upon ideas from Extreme Programming 4 . Architecture is obviously 
based around the 12-factor application 1 . The Chaos Monkey is from 
Netflix 5 . Migrations is a term from Rails. Continuous deployment with 
an immune system comes from IMVU via Timothy Fitz 6 .The launch 



section is adapted from How to Launch Software 7 . 




4 . http : / /www . extremeprogramming . org / 

5 . 

6 . https : / / timothyfit z . wordpress . com/ 2009/02/10/ continuous-deployment-at- 

7. see article "How To Launch Software" 





Noam Chomsky: The New War Against Terrorism 1 . Chomsky is the kind of 
person who is so eminently reasonable that you can’t help but agree with what 
he writes. But then you realize how far he is from the rest of the population 
and you wonder what’s happened to the world today. 

Also check out Bad News: Noam Chomsky Archive 2 . 

March 21, 2002 

1 . 

2 . http : / / monkeyfist .com/ ChomskyArchi ve